Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue levy hike to boost emergency response

Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue will move forward with a levy-lid lift on the February ballot.

The decision was made official Dec. 8 during the fire district’s board of commissioners regular meeting. Commissioners Cheryl Engle, Tom Smith and Paul Messner unanimously approved the proposal.

If successful, the lid lift would increase the levy by 34 cents. This year’s rate was set at 97 cents per $1,000 of assessed value but is expected to increase to $1 next year. At $1.34, that works out to $33.50 per month or $402 annually for a $300,000 home.

According to Engle, one of the big focuses of the levy funds would be to pay for recruitment and retainment programs for volunteers, numbers of  which have been on the decline for nearly 20 years.

Engle said volunteer levels are so low that the district has little choice but to address the problem. Providing the district’s current level of service without them would be a much more expensive proposition, she said.

“That means hiring and that’s a costly business,” Engle said.

Central Whidbey doesn’t have the large tax base enjoyed by large urban departments so it must rely on volunteers to provide 24-hour coverage to approximately 10,000 residents.

In the past 10 years, call volume has increased 21 percent while volunteer levels have decreased 42 percent. According to Fire Chief Ed Hartin, recent events have shown that number to be inadequate. Earlier this month, the district was responding to an emergency medical service call when it received another call to an airplane crash on Ebey’s Bluff.

An accident of that type requires 12 personnel for an adequate response, Hartin said. At the same time, additional firefighters should be at the station to respond to other emergency calls that may come in.

“These staffing levels are not available to us,” said Hartin, in a recent news release. “We had three on-duty personnel arrive from the EMS call within 13 minutes and four volunteer firefighters within a half-hour. A half-hour response time is too long, and the limited number of personnel meant that two fire engines and a water tender couldn’t be used if there were other emergencies.”

Equipement issues are also posing a problem. Currently, emergency apparatus is serviced off island or by a visiting  specialized mechanic. Both options are very expensive, and make fire engines and other equipment unavailable for extended periods of time when it might be needed.

Revenue from the levy will be used to hire two full-time fire fighters. In addition to responding to emergency calls, one fire fighter would be dedicated to volunteer recruitment, and the other would be a trained mechanic to repair the district’s apparatus.

According to Hartin, the levy lid lift will meet the immediate emergency response needs of the community through 2016.


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