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State of the Fire Department: View from the Chief’s Office

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Many people have asked what has surprised me the most after three months on the job. The answer is the call volume. East Pierce Fire and Rescue responds to more alarms than other departments with more resources and larger populations to protect. This is a busy place—and it is only getting busier. We have already seen a 12 percent jump in emergency medical (EMS) calls since 2011. Part of the increase is due to an aging population, but part is due to growth in our area. The influx of multifamily housing and senior assisted living centers, particularly in Milton and Edgewood, means that we will need to add another medic unit to our system soon.

We also need more firefighters. Without additional staffing and units, 9-1-1 response times will increase along with call volumes. It’s a matter of numbers. We simply don’t have enough people or equipment to respond to everyone in a timely manner.

I am proud to say that our responders are highly dedicated and work hard to take care of the needs of our citizens. However, the firefighters are hampered by staffing levels that allow only two firefighters per fire engine. Arriving first on scene with only two firefighters increases the risk to the public and the firefighters.

Recently, I arrived at a fully involved house fire to find the crew of the first arriving engine in the backyard with a burn patient who had escaped the blaze. One of the firefighters was treating her injuries, while the other was lying on the ground next to the patient, shielding her from the heat of the fire. If that engine company had a third firefighter, a hose line would have been deployed to protect all of them. Instead, they had to wait for another engine company to arrive.

The day before, an East Pierce crew responded to a car crash in Milton. Two firefighters were attending a critically injured patient while a second patient remained trapped in the vehicle. Even when another crew of two firefighters arrived on scene, there were not enough personnel to care for both patients and cut the driver from the car. They had to wait for a third engine to arrive.

What if that was your family waiting for enough firefighters to arrive to rescue and care for them? Is that an acceptable response from your fire department?

Much of our focus is on preventing a tragedy. Our Fire Prevention Division works hard to keep up with growing demands. As a result, some tasks are not being addressed, including annual fire safety inspections for local businesses. I had hoped to assign engine companies to conduct some inspections, but the call volume is just too high. The fix is to add another person to Fire Prevention, with the primary responsibility of conducting annual inspections. Most of that cost can be offset by inspection fees.

We are also working to reprioritize expenditures in order to return our ladder truck, which has been idle due to a lack of staffing, to service. The ladder truck is necessary to meet Washington Survey and Rating Bureau—the agency that sets insurance ratings—requirements for providing elevated water streams, roof access and rescue operations during a structure fire.

We will continue to work on living within our means and stretch every dollar we receive, but that means making hard choices. East Pierce is funded through levies at a rate of $1.50 per thousand of assessed property value for fire services and 50 cents per thousand of assessed value for EMS. Year after year, the fire district has had to make difficult cuts to critical training, vehicle and station maintenance, staffing and more. Property values are increasing, but haven’t returned to previous levels. The backlog of maintenance alone is going to cost more money than we currently receive.

To help re-fund our department, I will recommend that the Board of Fire Commissioners ask voters to “lift the lid” on our levies in 2016. This is not a new tax. As the property values grow, we are limited by a legislated one percent growth cap, which means we no longer collect the voter-authorized amount. Lifting the lid will renew the existing levies back to the amount originally approved by the voters. We will probably have to ask for this every two years, unless another revenue source is implemented.

In 2017, we will likely ask the voters to support a bond to address an aging fleet of fire engines, ladder truck, medic units and some facility needs. Plans are being developed to systematically replace or re-chassis units where possible. We do have a small reserve account for this, but it’s not enough to address the needs, as we have put off purchases due to the recession.

We have several older stations that were originally built for a volunteer fire service deployment plan. Some have been remodeled several times, and are showing their age. Very few of our facilities meet the building code for Essential Public Facilities, which require they remain operational after most earthquakes. There may be a chance to combine the Edgewood and Milton stations and replace them with one, centrally located facility. Much more planning and research needs to be done. We intend to present a plan to the public by June 2016.

Because we have a dedicated and talented group of emergency responders and support staff, we have a strong department. They have worked hard to fill the gaps left by reduced staffing and underfunding. However, that rubber band can only be stretched for so long before it breaks. It will take the combined efforts of the fire district and the community it serves to support the excellent fire, rescue and EMS service you expect and deserve. I look forward to working with you.

If you would like Chief Backer to address your group or association, please contact him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or call (253) 863-1800.