Butte (MT) Elevation Unforeseen Impact on Fire Apparatus Needs

The only company that offered to sell Butte-Silver Bow a new $288,000 pumper fire truck missed a detail that makes a difference at Butte’s elevation.

Because Butte sits at 5,539 feet — higher than mile-high Denver, Colorado — the fire truck can’t pump as much water per minute as it was advertised and certified to when the bid was submitted recently.

Big Sky Fire Equipment of Lewistown caught the missed detail and sent a letter noting the fact to Fire Chief Jeff Miller. He opened the bid — the only one the county received — and then the letter at the last council meeting.

County officials haven’t decided what to do in light of the oversight.

The 2016 GPM Pumper/Tender truck in question is for the Big Butte Volunteer Fire Department and will replace a 1975 pumper it got as a hand-me-down from the county’s paid department in 2007. The paid department also got a new $506,000 truck in the latest county budget approved last August.

The county was looking for a truck that could pump 1,500 gallons of water per minute, and the truck it was offered could do that in most urban settings in the United States. But not in Butte.

“It seems that once you hit 4,000 feet, the less atmospheric pressure you have pushing down on the water,” Miller said Monday.

If the truck is hooked to a fire hydrant, Miller said, it doesn’t make much difference. That’s because hydrants are pushing water into the pumper truck and that flow usually allows it to be pumped out at 1,500 gallons per minute.

But pumper trucks and other firefighting equipment are supposed to meet standards set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The Insurance Services Office (ISO) checks on whether they are met or not and figures that into insurance rates.

The NFPA tests pumper trucks on how much water they can pump per minute drawing from a stationary source of water, be it a tank or pond or creek, not from a hydrant. Miller likens that to sipping soda from a straw.

The outflow in that process in a pumper truck is slowed in much higher altitudes — like the ones in Butte.

In practical terms, hitting the 1,500 gallons-per-minute mark rarely makes a big difference here, Miller said.

The Big Butte department has been using a truck that could pump 1,000 gallons of water per minute. That is sufficient for “what the mission of that truck is” most of the time, Miller said. It would take a gigantic fire to make much difference.

There are a few options on what to do now.

Butte-Silver Bow Commissioner Jim Fisher says new bids should be sought.

“If we are not getting what we wanted for the price we wanted, we should back off and evaluate this and get more information,” he said. “It’s a large investment.”

Miller said that’s certainly an option, but he also wants to talk to the manufacturer to see if the pumper can be brought up to the 1,500-gallon mark and if so how much it would cost.

Another option is simply “decertifying” the truck down to 1,250 gallons of water per minute so it meets that standard.

For more information, view mtstandard.com


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