There is a distinct difference in the concrete blocks that support the exterior walls of the Fort Ellis Fire Station.
On one side of the wall of an engine bay the cement blocks are neatly stacked atop one another. The other is more haphazard, with cracks and zigzagging patterns.
Before the building became a fire station in 1969, it was used as a shower facility by the neighboring Mount Ellis Academy.
In the over 50 years since taking residence at the old shower building, Fort Ellis Fire and Rescue have pieced together new additions, expanding beyond the original walls.
Now, the volunteer department is on the cusp of building a new station. The plan is to break ground on a new, $6.5 million facility on Oct. 4.
Plans for the new facility depict a modern, sleek building with a massive engine bay, community room and space set aside for living quarters for firefighters.
The reasons to build a new station are multifaceted. One driver is to match the growth in Gallatin County and in the department’s 59 square mile service area.
Another is that the department’s lease with landowner Mount Ellis Academy is set to expire next year.
Perhaps the most outstanding issue is that the building is structurally unsound.
The engine bay with its haphazard wall was built by volunteer firefighters, Fort Ellis Fire Chief Mike Cech said. Many were farmers, some were cadets from Mount Ellis Academy, but none were architects.
That bay is also the most structurally unsound and dangerous part of the building, and prone to flooding.
“There were great intentions by the folks that built it, but it is not up to today’s standards,” Cech said.
Fort Ellis Fire and Rescue is comprised of 31 volunteers.
Each volunteer carries a pager that buzzes to life when a call comes in.
When a call happens, whoever is available mobilizes and rushes to the station. The middle of the day can be difficult, he said. Though some of the volunteers are retirees living nearby, many others have regular jobs or families at home.
Cech said that volunteers are given three priorities: family, their job and the fire department.
“We all do this because we love it,” he said.
But, the inefficiencies caused by the station’s layout, and lack of space, can cause issues with preparing for or coming back from a call.
Those problems can be tied to the layout of the present Fort Ellis Fire and Rescue station, which is reflective of the minor and major additions made throughout the years.
There is no central engine bay that houses every truck, structural fire truck or water tender. Instead, there are multiple engine bays and garages scattered throughout the property, which causes issues with getting trucks out and ready to leave for a call, Cech said.
The largest engine bay is filled to the brim with different trucks, too. That means that depending on the nature of a call, firefighters might have to pull out trucks that are blocking the vehicle they need.
“We’re at a point right now where we’re totally full,” Cech said.
The organization intends to solve that problem in the new facility with a five-garage engine bay that can house the department’s present fleet of vehicles, while also having space for new additions.
Efficiency also plays a factor into the department’s response time to the variety of calls the firefighters handle, which include structural fires, mutual aid to nearby departments like Bozeman Fire, medical services and accidents on I-90.
Cech said that about one-third of the calls that the department deals with are wrecks on the interstate.
Response times from the department are between 10 and 12 minutes, Cech said. The hope is that with a more efficient station, and the addition of living quarters in the future, that response time could be shaved to three minutes.
Another problem caused by the cramped conditions is the lack of a proper decontamination space.
The firefighters’ gear is in the largest engine bay, snugly tucked into a row of benches and cabinets right next to a fire engine. The problem is that when firefighters return from a call where they have to deal with hazardous materials, they don’t have a place to decontaminate, which could lead to health issues.
The new facility will have its own decontamination area separate from a free standing locker room, Cech said.
As much as the new station boasts almost everything the department could need, there is still one hurdle left in building it.
Fort Ellis Fire and Rescue’s new station will be in the same area as the old one, just up the road on Bozeman Trail.
Cech said that it was important to stay in the same area for many reasons. For example, many of the residents in the fire service area do not have fire hydrants, and other fire departments would not be able to get to a call in the area or on I-90 as quickly as the Fort Ellis department can.
Staying in the area, and building a new station, is not free, however.
The new facility is projected to cost $6.5 million. Most of the funding has been secured through bank financing, money from the department and from rate increases.
Rates that residents in the fire service area pay are the primary funding mechanism for the volunteer department. Last year, the Gallatin County Commission approved a rate increase up to $400. The idea was to begin building up money to pay for the new facility.
But, there is still more money needed.
Cech said that the department is seeking donations to bridge a $1.5 million gap. The department hired the Bannack Group to help get the message out and churn up fundraising opportunities.
And it appears that the move has worked, with the station having raised about $620,000 so far.
“Folks that live in this district understand the value of the fire department,” Cech said. “A fire department growing with the county is important to them.”