Central Whidbey voters will decide fire future
By JUSTIN BURNETT
Whidbey News Times Staff reporter
February 4, 2012 · Updated 5:40 AM
For more than a century, fire services on Central Whidbey was handled by a single group of people — volunteers.
They were our friends, our neighbors, our dentists and lawyers. They taught our children, built our houses, and worked at the local grocery.
Volunteer firefighting is a proud tradition, and one that’s existed and thrived in small communities across the country for generations. Yet, for a variety of reasons, volunteer numbers are on the decline.
In fact, nationally it’s at its lowest level in 25 years.
Central Whidbey has been hit particularly hard. Since 1993, its complement of 57 volunteers has been whittled down to a roster of just 17, not including two in the academy. During that time, the district has transitioned to a combination department that includes 19 total paid personnel.
They have helped to fill in the gap and assure adequate fire service, but it’s not enough and the ramifications of the department’s dwindling volunteer ranks has become increasingly clear with a reduction in response capabilities.
Fire officials hope to tackle the problem with a 34-cent levy lid increase on the Feb. 14 special election ballot. But it’s a fix not everyone agrees with.
Also, while the district can boast it is debt-free, it has a tax rate higher than its two island neighbors, both of which serve more people and respond to more calls each year.
While there may be some disagreement about the need for a levy increase, there is little debate that the volunteer problem is very real. Win or lose at the polls, it’s a problem that will continue to challenge the district and define how fire services are delivered in Central Whidbey.
Operating debt free
According to Central Whidbey Fire Commissioner Paul Messner, one of Central Whidbey’s strengths is that it is debt-free.
Instead of using bonds to pay for capital purchases, which incur greater expense over the long term with interest payments, the board has used money from its existing levy. That was the case last year when the board approved the 2012 budget, which included the purchase of a fire engine.
“If you bought it with a bond, it would cost twice as much,” Messner said.
While many might consider that wise spending, the policy isn’t without critics. Coupeville resident John Kohlmann said it takes away voters’ ability to weigh in on capital purchases, which are often put before the people with a bond or levy.
“I’d like to know what I’m voting for,” Kohlmann said.
Also, if the district has enough money for new fire engines, he questions why it can’t also drum up enough for more volunteers.
Central Whidbey Fire Chief Ed Hartin said there is no fluff in the budget. In fact, without the levy increase, the department faces an estimated shortfall next year of $190,000.
The district would have to cut all 10 of its part-time firefighters along with one full-time position, which would result in the loss of 24-hour coverage by paid personnel.
“There is no way around that,” Hartin said.
The loss of 11 employees may have other impacts as well. The district currently receives about $200,000 from Whidbey General Hospital for basic life support ambulance services. According to Hartin, it will be difficult to meet the terms of that contract with the staff cuts and so few volunteers.
If the levy passes, about $200,000 would fund one full-time training captain, who would focus on volunteer recruitment and retention, and one full-time firefighter, who would also serve as a mechanic.
According to Hartin, that would also cover the expense of new volunteers. They may be donating their time at no cost, but training and gear cost the district about $5,000 each.
“Volunteers aren’t free,” Hartin said.
The largest portion of the additional levy funds, about $235,000, would be put away each year to fund the replacement of fire apparatus as needed, and the remainder, about $75,000, would go toward maintaining the existing level of service.
Another concern voters may have is that Central Whidbey’s tax rate is higher than both North Whidbey Fire and Rescue or South Whidbey Fire/EMS. Yet, they have more residents and respond to more calls every year.
According to Hartin, most of Central Whidbey’s current budget, approximately $1.1 million, pays for paid personnel. That breaks down to 10 part-time and six full-time firefighters, two command chiefs, one office manager and a part-time office assistant.
Along with its 17 volunteers, the district serves about 10,000 people and responded to 959 calls in 2011. That compares to 17,000 residents and 1,645 calls at North Whidbey Fire and Rescue and 15,000 residents and 1,950 calls at South Whidbey Fire/EMS Fire.
Messner argues that comparing district data can be a tricky business, especially when it concerns total district population and call volume. What those numbers don’t tell is that all three service areas are about the same size geographically. Having the assets necessary to respond to any part of a district, whether it’s once or five times a day, costs about the same, he said.
“The cost of covering the area is the same regardless of the amount of people in it,” Messner said.
Hartin said it is hard to accurately compare district data because all departments work and perform a little differently. Also, while Central Whidbey residents may be paying more for their fire service, it’s not without value.
Paid personnel not only provide a guaranteed response 24 hours a day, they also perform a variety of other duties, he said. For example, the inspection of fire hydrants helps keep homeowner’s fire insurance ratings down.
Full-time staff also tend to be more stable positions, with less turnover than both part-time and volunteers. That often translates to a more experienced and more effective department, he said.
“Again, I think we’re getting good value out of the people we have,” Hartin said.
Pieces of the puzzle
According to the National Volunteer Fire Council, 70 percent of the country’s 1.3 million firefighters are volunteers.
However, from 1984 and 2010, that number has dropped 14 percent. While a decline in volunteers is clearly a national problem, there are many strategies that have been successfully employed, said Philip Stittleburg, the association’s chairman and a volunteer fire chief in LaFarge, Wis.
One of the most effective is a program called Fire Corps. Simply put, it aims to connect departments with people who want to volunteer but not in emergency roles. Retired accountants, lawyers, handymen; many might be very willing to lend a hand if given the opportunity, he said.
“There is so much talent out there,” Stittleburg said.
Chief Hartin is familiar with the program and plans to put the concept behind it to good use. It could be particularly helpful considering Coupeville’s rising median age of 51 years, he said.
Another successful strategy involves the use of youth programs in local schools. One once existed in Coupeville and Hartin said he has had talks with school officials about getting it started again.
There are a few obstacles, however. The days of sending students into burning buildings, or any other dangerous situation for that matter, are long gone. Any future program would largely be more educational in nature.
But the value of getting young people interested in the fire service and volunteerism should not be underestimated, he said.
“I think that’s a very important piece of the puzzle,” Hartin said.
Finally, the department will focus heavily on the retention of existing volunteers. Over the past four years, the department has seen 30 new recruits come through the door. But, economic and demographic challenges have resulted in the loss of 32 during the same period.
The district is already working on addressing retainment issues, but there is room for improvement, he said.
“We do a good job but I think we can do a lot better,” Hartin said.
While some might argue that the department could do more with less, a lack of volunteers and the pressures that have decimated their ranks will continue to present challenges whether the levy is approved or not.
“We’re going to need to work on it no matter what,” Hartin said.
But its passage will make things considerably easier, he said. With the proposed training captain, Hartin hopes to increase volunteer levels by at least 20 people. That’s how many are needed to provide an adequate level of service, he said.
Without someone dedicated to the job, the duties will fall on those who remain, which will slow an already difficult task. Even with the training captain, he expects it would be two or three years before they reach their goal.
“It’s like turning an aircraft carrier around,” Hartin said. “It takes a long time.”
But neither he nor Stittleburg say it’s impossible.
With a history that dates back to before the American Revolution, and 768,150 volunteers serving across the country in 2010, volunteer firefighting isn’t a tradition that will go away anytime soon, Stittleburg said.
Every department that relies on volunteers has its own set of challenges, whether they be economic or demographic. The solution for each will vary but it’s something the fire service can handle.
“Solving problems is our job,” Stittleburg said.
Last of a series
This is the final story in a three-part series looking at declining volunteer levels at Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue. The problem is beginning to adversely affect the department’s performance.
The district is hoping to address the issue with a 34-cent levy-lid increase on the Feb. 14 special election ballot.
Estimated to garner an additional $510,000 a year, a portion would fund recruitment efforts.
If passed, the total levy for a $300,000 home chalks out to $33.50 per month or $402 annually.
Whidbey fire districts, side by side 2012
Residents in district: 10,000
Paid personnel: 10 part-time, 9 full-time
Assessed valuation: $1.6 billion
Levy rate: $1 per $1,000
Amount collected: $1.6 million
Residents in district: 17,000
Paid personnel: 25 part-time, 4 full-time
Assessed valuation: $1.9 billion
Levy rate: 73 cents per $1,000
Amount collected: $1.4 million
Residents in district: 15,000
Volunteers: 74 including
Paid personnel: 2 part-time, 7 full-time
Assessed valuation: $3.7 billion
Levy rate: 61 cents per $1,000
Amount collected: $2.2 million
Contact Whidbey News Times Staff reporter Justin Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360-675-6611 ext. 5054.