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Firefighters spend the night on Central Whidbey

More emergencies and fewer volunteers forced firefighters on Central Whidbey to change the way they man stations.

Central Whidbey Island Fire and Rescue recently started staffing at least two firefighters at all hours.

The number of calls to the mostly volunteer fire district has been increasing by 5 percent to 6 percent a year. In 2006 the number of calls spiked to 1,200, which is up from 800 in 2005. Joe Biller, chief of Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue, attributed last year’s increase to the severe winter, among other things.

“We’re just getting busier,” Biller said.

That increase has made it difficult for the volunteers to keep up with the number of emergencies.

“It gets increasingly difficult for volunteers to get up and go,” Biller said.

He said it’s particularly tough on days where there are numerous calls or when multiple emergencies happen at the same time.

While the number of emergencies is increasing, the number of volunteers available to respond is decreasing.

There are approximately 35 firefighters currently volunteering for Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue, which is down from approximately 60 volunteers 20 years ago, Biller said.

He attributed that to a number of factors. People are busy working and aren’t able to meet the considerable time commitment needed to keep up with the training in addition to responding to calls at all hours of the day. It’s tough for a volunteer to participate when there are three to four calls a day.

The diminishing number of volunteers looks to be a continuing trend. Biller said Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue sent just one volunteer to this year’s training academy.

Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue officials have been preparing for the past two years to accommodate 24-hour service.

Biller said three years ago, the fire district didn’t have the facilities where staff could work overnight.

Volunteers about a year ago teamed up to convert a building at the headquarters on Race Road from a workout area and lunch room to sleeping quarters for firefighters. The new fire station in Coupeville also has sleeping quarters for firefighters.

Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue also had to hire two additional firefighters, bringing the total of paid firefighters in the district to eight. The district currently has two firefighters on every shift. They work one 24-hour shift and then have two days off.

Volunteers started manning the station on what Biller called “hit and miss coverage” about a year ago. Then the additional firefighters started in May to allow nighttime coverage every day.

While there are more paid firefighters working on Central Whidbey, volunteers will retain an important role in the fire department.

Biller said that volunteers are encouraged to work an occasional night and 50 percent of the volunteers staff the night shift. When there are enough volunteers working, then the Coupeville station will also be manned.

“Volunteers are a critical element to making this work,” Biller said.

It looks like more people will need to be hired in October as the fire district’s responsibilities will expand.

The fire districts on the island will start operating basic life support service in October. That will ease the demand placed on advanced life support service that is currently run by Whidbey General Hospital.

Biller said fire and rescue is looking to hire around 14 part-time staffers needed to account for the expansion.

He said the part-time staff is a less expensive way to handle the expansion, but such work can be a springboard into full-time positions.

The most recent expansion is being funded through the current tax revenue Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue receives. The district will receive some financial assistance from Whidbey General Hospital when it starts basic life support service.

Biller said Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue may look to voters to approve a tax increase in the coming years to help pay for the expanding service. Like other taxing districts, Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue is limited to increasing property taxes to one percent a year and Biller said that isn’t enough to keep up with cost increases every year.

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