Staffing challenges and outdated equipment have led South Whidbey Fire/EMS officials to consider asking voters to approve a levy lid lift in 2024.
Voters last approved a fire levy rate of 95 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value in 2021, but increasing property values have since compressed the rate to 81 cents. Because of this, the district is proposing a new rate of $1.20 to meet its needs.
The price of replacing aging equipment has risen in recent years, according to Fire Chief Nick Walsh, who said a $600,000 fire engine now costs $1 million. Within the next five years, the fire district hopes to acquire three fire engines, two water tenders and Jaws of Life for a total equipment cost of $4.5 million. And receiving the equipment is another issue – Walsh said it can take up to two years for an engine to be delivered.
At the same time, the district requires more paid full-time personnel to cut down response times, which currently average about 14 minutes per call.
“When you’re dealing with cardiac arrest or a fire, cutting your time in half is very impactful,” Walsh said.
Currently, 15 full-time firefighters and about 30 volunteers serve the entire vast district, which covers 66 square miles. Although there are six fire stations located throughout the district, only one to two are fully staffed on a regular basis. Walsh said a third station staffed in the southeastern part of the district would better serve Clinton, an area that can take a while to reach in a pinch.
Paid personnel are also quicker to respond to emergencies, as opposed to volunteers, who need to get dressed and drive to the station before responding to a call.
State law dictates that firefighters cannot enter a burning building without a minimum of four people on scene. This issue would be resolved with five people staffing the district per day.
The goal is to hire two more firefighters per year over five years, which Walsh said would improve response times by five minutes on average. The annual estimated cost is $300,000.
Call volumes have increased by 26% in the last 10 years, according to Walsh. The most common call is medical-related.
The levy represents 96% of the district’s revenue. In updating the strategic plan and the budget for 2024, it was discovered that additional revenue is needed to continue maintaining service for South Whidbey residents. This year, the community will have the chance to weigh in on the proposed levy lid lift, which the district hopes to have on the ballot.