Fire district considered

By Jason Ferguson


In the not-too-distant future, the Custer Volunteer Fire Department (CVFD) will likely have full-time employees who are paid for through a taxing district. Ideally, those employees will have a new fire hall to sleep in as well.

Those were two of the issues discussed by CVFD chief Joel Behlings at the Aug. 6 meeting of the Custer City Council, at which Behlings walked the council through a facility review recently conducted by Emergency Services Consulting International, as well as an architect engineering firm.

Behlings said the initial plan was for all of Custer County’s fire departments to have their facilities and apparatus reviewed. When some of the county departments balked at that, the department decided to still proceed.

The review showed the department’s apparatus is in “very good” condition, but some recommendations were made. Among those included replacing one engine by making it dual purpose with rescue equipment or combining a water tender and engine. The department decided the rescue engine option is the more important apparatus at this time. By making engines dual purpose, it cuts down on the department’s rolling stock, Behlings said.

Behlings said a new engine won’t be cheap, as it would likely cost $400,000-$500,000. A ladder truck can run upwards of $1 million, he said, but added it is unlikely such a truck would be purchased because it could only be used in the city of Custer (CVFD has a protection area of 400 square miles) and sprinkler systems in new, taller buildings help reduce the need for such trucks.

The architect engineering firm, the BKV Group, went through the fire hall, the annex to the west of the hall (the former Allen’s Home Furnishings building) and city hall.

The fire department has the option of refurbishing its buildings or building a new fire hall, likely on the lot it has long owned on the corner of N. 7th and Crook streets. When the City of Custer offices move to the community center, the fire department could take over that building and turn it into meeting rooms, sleeping facilities and offices and make the current station entirely for apparatus. The annex would be torn down and turned into a new building for apparatus with taller doors for the larger engines.

Behlings said it is questionable if refurbishing its facilities would give the department all it needs, as it wouldn’t allow for much more space. The ideal way to go, he said, may be the construction of a new fire hall 19,669-33,929 square feet.

Behlings said one thing that could be explored is combining with other agencies—such as the U.S. Forest Service fire crew—for a hall and share costs. Other options are combining facilities with the ambulance service, a nationwide trend. Behlings stressed none of these entities have been contacted about a joint venture and they are merely possible ideas at this point.

One thing that is gaining steam, however, is the formation of a Custer Fire District in which those within the fire district would pay an extra tax for fire protection. As fewer and fewer volunteers sign up to join fire departments, many departments are forming fire districts as a way to pay for firefighters to ensure there is always someone to respond to calls. If the department goest the route of a new fire hall, it would still be five to 10 years out, Behlings said.

He said some county departments have pitched a countywide fire district, but both he and first assistant chief Bill Bell are opposed to that idea.

“It’s time to take care of ourselves,” Behlings said.

He said the creation of a fire district is only in the exploratory stage and would be, at a minimum, a two-year process. It would have to be approved by voters within the fire district. If approved, a fire district board would be formed, which would then hire the Custer department to provide the protection.

In the short term, there are fixes the department needs to make at its current hall, including separate areas for male and female firefighters as well as making bathrooms Americans with Disabilities Act compliant.

In other news from the Aug. 6 meeting, the council:

• Approved asking the S.D. Army National Guard for assistance with several areas of construction with the city’s planned reconstruction and restoration of West Dam.

• Approved a bid by McGas to provide $25,000 gallons of propane for the city in 2018-19. McGas submitted a low bid of $29,750, or $1.19 per gallon. Also bidding were Custer Gas ($1.50 per gallon) and Nelson’s Oil & Gas ($1.55 per gallon).

• Heard from city public works director Bob Morrison that some residents west of the Custer sign want some trees cut down near the sign so they can better see it. Morrison said he would investigate how many trees would need to be cut down and report back to the council.

• Heard from city planning director Tim Hartmann, who said an environmental study has begun at the community center, which has to be completed to apply for grants or loans from South Dakota Rural Development to help fund completion of the center. Hartmann said he would work with architect Gene Fennell to secure an updated cost estimate for finishing the community center all at once.

• Learned from Morrison that the city’s force main that takes effluent from the city wastewater treatment plant to Flynn Creek broke again near the baseball field on the west part of town. City workers had the main fixed within two days, but while the work was being done the effluent had to be discharged into French Creek, which, while allowed, is frowned upon by the state.

However, Morrison said testing upstream for nitrates, e.coli, ammonia, total suspended solids and other possible contaminants showed that in some respects, the treated wastewater was less contaminated than the French Creek water, meaning in some respects the effluent was actually diluting the water in French Creek.

“There really were no health concerns whatsoever,” Morrison said.