Central Whidbey fire district may seek levy lid lift

Central Whidbey Fire may soon seek a levy lid lift to pay for additional full-time firefighters.

Central Whidbey Island Fire and Rescue may soon seek a levy lid lift to pay for additional full-time firefighters to meet rising demand for emergency services.

According to acting fire Chief Jerry Helm, call volumes in Central Whidbey have increased by more than 50% in the last 10 years. In 2012, the last time the department asked for a lid lift, the department received around 1,000 calls. Now, the department responds to an average of 1,715 annual calls.

Furthermore, nearly 30% of the department’s calls come in clusters in time, Helm said, but it doesn’t have the manpower to respond to multiple calls at a time.

“We’re considering adding more staffing to meet that demand,” he said. “We’ve been struggling along in the past trying to meet that demand with the amount of people we currently have.”

Central Whidbey Island Fire and Rescue is a combination department, meaning it relies upon what Helm called the “three-legged stool” of staffing — full-time employees, part-time employees and volunteers. The department only has the capacity to have two to three firefighters on duty at a time.

Volunteers provide invaluable assistance, Helm said, but they have other jobs and there is no guarantee they will be available when a call comes in. Fire departments nationwide have been contending with a shortage of volunteer firefighters lately.

The department would like to hire four more full-time firefighters — enough to have four firefighters on each shift, Helm said. Between salary and benefits, the cost to hire one full-time firefighter for a year is around $100,000 to $122,000. To fund these hires, the department is considering asking the public for a levy lid lift.

The agency, which has long enjoyed strong voter support, already has the highest levy rate among Whidbey Island fire districts, although the other two are also considering asking voters to increase levies in the future.

The Central Whidbey department’s current levy is 86 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. The district also has an ongoing bond at a rate of around 15 cents per $1,000 for three new fire engines and construction of a new station, bringing the total tax rate to $1.01 per thousand.

Helm said the district is considering asking voters to raise the levy rate to $1.18 per thousand. With the bond rate, district taxpayers would pay $1.33 for $1,000 of assessed value.

The levy lid lift will likely appear on the ballot in November. Helm said the fire district will conduct public outreach before then to receive input from community members on the potential measure.

“At the end of the day, it’s their choice on the level of service that people want,” he said.

Staffing woes are not unique to the Central Whidbey district. North Whidbey Fire and Rescue interim Chief Chris Swiger said the island’s northernmost district is also “hurting for people.” The district downsized from two fully staffed stations to just one in 2021, and the average response time to calls subsequently increased.

A survey put out by the fire district last year intended to educate the public about the level of service the district is able to provide with its current staffing levels did not receive many responses, Swiger said.

North Whidbey Fire and Rescue’s current levy rate is just shy of 60 cents per $1,000 assessed property value, according to data from the Island County Assessor’s Office. Swiger said at this rate, the district is dipping into its reserves. District officials are considering asking for a levy lid lift next year.

South Whidbey Fire/EMS recently hired three additional staff members “by reprioritizing our budget toward staffing,” Chief Nick Walsh said. The South End department’s levy rate is currently 84 cents per $1,000 of assess value, already down from the 95 cents approved by voters in 2020 because of soaring property values. Walsh said levy compression due to rising property values may make another lid lift necessary in the future.

Low staffing has myriad impacts both on working firefighters and the communities they serve. Central Whidbey Island Fire and Rescue Division Chief Jim Mirabile, a retired firefighter from the Washington, D.C. area who conducted a vehicle extrication training with Central Whidbey firefighters last week, said that a crew of two can be effective but not efficient. Two firefighters can do their jobs well, but not nearly as quickly as a larger crew, and in an emergency scenario such as a fire or motor vehicle accident, every second counts.

Furthermore, Central Whidbey Island Fire and Rescue doesn’t have the capacity to respond to multiple calls at once, meaning a second or third call to come in might have a longer response time.

Insufficient staff also affects the firefighters themselves, Mirabile said. Incoming calls interrupt valuable training time when there isn’t another crew on hand to respond to an emergency; last week’s car extrication training was cut short when firefighters were called to an incident.

Mirabile added that firefighters bear the physical, mental and emotional load of having to take on so many responsibilities that, under ideal staffing conditions, would be spread among many more staff members.