A matter of life and death | Editorial

Lives may well depend on the outcome of the levy hike increase requested by Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue. The mail-in election has been in progress for two weeks and culminates on election day Tuesday, Feb. 14.

The fire district is asking for a property tax levy increase to $1.34 per thousand of assessed value, up from the present $1 per thousand. The additional tax on a $300,000 house would be $102 annually, or $8.50 per month.

The key to Central Whidbey’s need for a tax increase is the plummeting  number of volunteer firefighters and EMTs. There are now only 19, compared to 57 about 20 years ago. The lack of sufficient volunteers requires more paid staff. Central Whidbey presently employs 10 part-time and nine full-time people, and would add two more full-time positions if the levy is successful. The job description for one of the new positions includes going out and finding more volunteers.

As pointed out in reporter Justin Burnett’s three-part series on Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue that concluded Saturday, Central Whidbey has a particular problem in recruiting and keeping volunteers. It’s a nationwide problem, but neither of the other two Whidbey Island fire districts has suffered so greatly in this regard.

There are numerous reasons for the lack of volunteers on Central Whidbey: Fewer people have jobs which they can leave when the fire pager goes off; there are fewer jobs overall; younger people, once trained, often go elsewhere for paid work; and people moving here are generally looking forward to retirement, not hundreds of hours of required training to become a volunteer firefighter.

Perhaps more volunteers can be rounded up in the future, but voters must first make sure Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue can do its job now. Response time is getting longer: as much as 30 minutes to get to a fire. The department responded to 960 calls in 2011, most of them medical in nature. Generally, fire district EMTs can reach a health crisis much more quickly than the ambulance crew. They stabilize the patient until ready for transport to the hospital. It’s a vital function, and one that must be continued.

Tax increases are painful, but basic life-saving services must be supported by the community. When you dial 911, you want to know help will arrive in minutes, not in half an hour or more. Vote “yes” on Feb. 14.


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