Firefighters passed a cooled pot of soup around the table when, mid-lunch for the second time, pagers went off at Bozeman Fire Station No. 1.

A contractor broke a gas line a few blocks from Main Street. The men shifted from life in what resembled a dorm into methodically packing into their fire engine.

In a job where danger increases quickly, Bozeman firefighters aim to move from the downtown station to the call's location in 6 minutes. Mid-route on Wednesday, a second countdown began as dispatch cracked over radios with another ping for help.

“That’s five calls in 30 minutes,” Battalion Chief Graver Johnson said as he made his way through Bozeman.

When Johnson started in 1997, the department had roughly 700 calls annually. Now it’s more than 4,600. Despite new positions and demands, the crew at Fire Station No. 1 is in the same 1960s building where Johnson had his first shift.

When the radio quieted Wednesday, firefighters returned to the garage where the 35-foot-long engine shares space with a tool shop, Bozeman’s original fire engine and the station’s only training grounds — some weights, a climbing wall and a treadmill. 

“This is like a second home. We work 48-hour shifts so this is where I’ve spent a third of my life for 21 years,” Johnson said. “But this wasn’t built for what we need to do today.”

On Nov. 6, Bozeman voters will see a $36.9 million bond request to build the Bozeman Public Safety Center. It’s the city’s third attempt to get Bozeman police, courts and victim services out of the unsound and overcrowded Law and Justice Center shared with Gallatin County. For the first time, that plan includes a new home for Fire Station No. 1.

The city’s pushing for voter approval. So far, leaders spent $24,148 to educate people about the proposal and staff logged 428 hours on the project. They call it a four-in-one solution, the best plan yet.

In 30 days, Bozeman voters will decide whether they agree.

Why now?

City Hall’s latest answer to its public safety squeeze is a roughly 82,000-square-foot center on eight acres of city-owned land at Rouse Avenue and Oak Street. To do that, homeowners would have to agree to pay roughly $102 a year. That estimation is for someone with a home at the taxable value of $292,000, not what the home would sell for.

Every initiative effort has a price. Bozeman’s spent nearly $1.6 million on building designs for its three ballot initiatives and at least $35,325 on public outreach. That latter doesn’t count staff time, and officials point to the fact the $791,166 for designs for the first Rouse center dropped the latest effort to $32,263 as they folded old plans into the new.

Fire Station No. 1 sits between Hawthorne Elementary School and downtown, about two miles south of the city’s proposed project. For those who work from the station, its faults aren’t new.

Johnson said a few years ago, an engineer’s report showed the building needed a lot of work.

“Basically, it failed everything,” he said, from the foundation to its size.

The report listed 20 seismic issues — meaning if the ground moved too much, the building wouldn't hold up. 

In the basement, Johnson opened the door to his windowless office in what once was a conference room. Short, gray dividing walls separate his desk from his bed.

On the same floor is a 53-year-old boiler system that’s broken down twice in three years. Its pipes are ingrained throughout the building. The system sits in a room with water marks along the walls from annual spring floods.

Down the hall are three locked cells, fossils of the city’s former jail that now house stacked boxes of reports and evidence.

On the main floor, the break room doubles as the mailroom, file storage and space for IT. Upstairs, four twin beds make the firefighters’ quarters. The only separation of space is the wall beds are pulled against. 

When a call goes out, whoever drives that day gets a 4-inch margin of error before hitting the garage door or pulling a hose from the ceiling. And the engine has roughly 25 feet from the door to the street, meaning the driver has to stick the engine's nose into three lanes of traffic to turn right.

That’s complicated by Hawthorne's morning and afternoon traffic and, as Fire Chief Josh Waldo put it, “it’s not like driving a Subaru.”

That long list can make it hard to understand why Fire Station No. 1 hasn’t been part of the city’s plans before. Waldo said it comes down to timing.

Best laid plans

In 2011, the city’s original plan was fixing and adding onto Fire Station No. 1. By 2013, contracted engineers delivered the estimated price.

“It wasn’t a $30,000 fix, it was a couple million,” Waldo said. “Starting then, it was, ‘What do we do? Where do we find this money?’”

The city was already pushing for its first safety ballot initiative — a Bozeman hub for police and courts on the same Rouse and Oak property.

Roughly a month before elections in 2014, Jeff Krauss, longtime commissioner who was mayor at the time, was scrolling through Facebook when he froze on a post announcing Bozeman police had its first armored vehicle, the BearCat.

“I read that and went, ‘Oh no, how in the world did this not come under commission oversight?’” Krauss said. “Then it was, ‘Oh no, our Rouse project.’”

The BearCat arrived among a national split over police militarization following an officer-involved shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. The shooting sparked protests as communities debated how officers should act. Commissioners scolded the now former city manager and former police chief for acting without permission, but ultimately kept the vehicle for high-risk calls.

“It was a scandal. I wasn’t surprised when the Rouse center failed a few weeks later,” Krauss said.

Waldo was new to Bozeman and the department in 2015. He didn’t have an answer for Fire Station No. 1's problems, but knew the only way to keep the location would be to buy more land downtown — a pricey fix.

“We could open up all the walls to replace the boiler, fix the seismic problems, but you're getting close to a $3.5 million price tag,” Waldo said. “And you’re adding no space to the building, you haven't addressed the floodplain, you haven’t addressed being landlocked.”

Waldo began updating the department’s master plan in 2016 and the city hired contractors to search for where to rebuild the station to keep firefighters within that 6-minute response time.

The same year, Bozeman’s second push for a new center failed. That attempt would have kept Gallatin County and Bozeman under the same roof. But it came with the sticker shock of $75.1 million. Not to mention, voters still didn’t trust the request. The two governments struggled to convince people they needed the space for first responders and courts, and that they weren’t building a jail.

As leaders began reshaping their plan for a third time, the fire department’s master plan went to print and contractors included their top suggestion: put Fire Station No. 1 at Rouse and Oak.

“For the first time, the city saw a way to combine all of the city’s public safety issues at once, under one roof,” Waldo said. “Now fire’s got a very defined need that incorporates into what police and courts and victim services need. We’ve got a solution that answers it all. This feels like everything’s aligning.”

Krauss said while commissioners knew the fire station needed a fix, they didn’t have an answer until last year. In the meantime, the priority’s been police and courts.

“For a decade, we’ve had a sense of urgency to get our police and courts out of that building,” Krauss said. “This is the third time in five years we've tried to put this in front of voters and the reason for that is it’s so badly needed.”

He added between the first request and today’s, things have changed. New leaders have tweaked the plans. And, he said, the city’s doubled down on department oversight, as in, no more surprises like armored vehicles.

Getting the word out

More than a decade into the pitch for a new center, city leaders struggle to make sure people in Bozeman know what the vote is about.

Since late July, officials have spent 254 hours talking in town halls, tabling at farmers markets and giving tours through the buildings they say first responders need out of.

On Sept. 19, Commissioner Terry Cunningham stood in the Bozeman Public Library for one of those meetings. He spoke to an audience of 11.

“We ask that you sort of take preconceived notions about past presentations and past ballot initiatives and just let us make the case for what’s being proposed,” Cunningham said.

He began with the typical starting point: Bozeman’s safe. According to stats, the safest large city in Montana. But by 2040, officials expect 100,000 people to live in city limits. Something has to change for the city’s police, courts and firefighters to keep up, Cunningham said.

He said a four-in-one plan makes the best use of taxpayers' money. He added Bozeman’s fire and police benefit from being in the same building, given the fact the two teams meet at most car wrecks or medical calls that involve drugs, alcohol or violence.

The longer the project waits, the more expensive it gets. Cunningham said inflation is estimated to add 6.5 percent to construction costs a year. The Public Safety Center would also delay the need for a fourth Bozeman fire station, which would cost $1.2 million a year to run.

The city’s police chief and municipal judge clicked through images of halls acting as storage and rooms serving five needs instead of what they were designed for.

The center can’t fix everything. While the move will buy Gallatin some time and space, the county will someday need its own solution to the Law and Justice Center.

And eventually, Bozeman Fire Station No. 2 on 19th Avenue will have to relocate closer to Montana State University to be able to hit that 6-minute response time. Waldo said while that's where the city's ladder truck should go to reach campus's tall buildings, it doesn't fit.

By the end of the meeting, most people in the small audience said the initiative had their vote. Kate Hofer, a Bozeman homeowner, was still split. She asked why the city hadn’t saved for the big project instead of asking residents to foot the bill, again.

“Obviously they need this,” Hofer said after the meeting. “First responders are a crucial piece of our community. But I fall into the category that many homeowners do — we’re feeling tapped out. There’s new schools, trails, tax increases. It’s a lot.”

Krauss said had the city saved for the project, past residents would have paid for the city’s protection into the future. He said the ballot does come with a big price, but one that shrinks a bit each year as Bozeman's population grows.

As for Waldo, he’s optimistic they’ll be able to get votes like Hofer’s. He has to be.

“The project’s not going to go away,” he said. “We’re going to continue to have this problem here, the problem for our police and our municipal courts. Just add 6 percent to the cost for every year that we don't do this.”

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628. Follow her on Twitter @K_Hought. 

Katheryn Houghton is the city government and health reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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