Volunteer burnout a problem for fire district, according to chief

  • Friday, July 3, 2020 5:51pm
  • News

Availability of firefighters has become a critical need for South Whidbey Fire/EMS staff, according to fire district officials.

To meet needs, the fire district is asking voters to approve a levy lid lift of 30 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value during the August primary.

If approved, the lid lift would increase from 65 to 95 cents and go into effect in spring 2021. Levy backers said the increase would help replace outdated equipment and hire eight full-time firefighters cross-trained as EMTs.

According to a press release, the fire district, which relies heavily on volunteers, lost six volunteers because they or a family member are considered a high-risk population due to COVID-19.

“Most fire districts have paid firefighters on call 24/7, but we don’t,” said Fire Chief Rusty Palmer said.

“We want our community to understand that call volumes have increased to such a point where we need full-time staffing.”

The National Fire Protection Association requires six firefighters on scene of a fire within 14 minutes, 80 percent of the time.

South Whidbey Fire/EMS is able to meet this criteria half of the time, according to district officials.

The fire district has four part-time paid personnel during daytime, when call volumes are highest and most volunteers are unavailable, district officials said.

The district supplements part-time paid personnel with volunteers, but this number has continued to decline. In 2015, the average number of firefighters responding was 4.78 compared to 4.37 in 2019.

During evenings and weekends, the fire district relies on one duty officer and volunteers, the district said in its press release. This number, too, has fallen from an average of 4.6 firefighters responding in 2015 to 4.44 in 2019.

Response times would also improve. Full-time firefighters can respond to calls directly from a station, rather than volunteers, who come from home.

“The issue is that call volumes are increasing, and we need more of their time than they are able to give,” Palmer said.

“We’re burning them out, and we want to keep them involved.”

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