Fire department chiefs speak out about why Tumwater and Olympia need a regional fire authority
Fire department chiefs speak out about why Tumwater and Olympia need a regional fire authority

Source: Google News

By Lorilyn C. Lirio

Tumwater Fire Chief Brian Hurley said that creating a Regional Fire Department (RFA) is the best way to address challenges faced by Olympia and Tumwater fire departments.

The RFA planning committee held a one-hour Town Hall online meeting last night, August 15, to discuss the potential RFA and its benefits to Tumwater and Olympia community members. Present in the meeting were 11 committee panelists and 22 community members.

According to Hurley, Olympia and Tumwater have a total of six fire stations. They are staffed 24/7 with different response units.

Hurley said these two cities had a combined full-time staff of 150, covering over 38 square miles and serving over 81,000 population. “The two agencies are on a combined total of about 20,000 responses per year.”

Fire departments challenges

Hurley said six jurisdictions commissioned Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI) study in 2019. “What they did is they looked at opportunities to gain efficiencies. One of the things that came out of that study was the idea of a Regional Fire Authority.”

The study also identified the challenges, including limited resources of both fire departments and a need to maintain the growing communities’ fire/EMS (Emergency Medical Service) needs.

Olympia Fire Chief Todd Carson said the community grows, so service demands continue to grow. “The cities have done a great job of trying to meet that service demand. But the resources and the demands are outpacing those revenues.”

The other challenge identified is the declining average fire/EMS response time, according to Hurley.

Carson said the call volumes are increasing each year. They aim to shorten the response time to six to seven minutes or less for 90% of calls.

The Tumwater fire chief commented that both cities are falling short. He said Olympia’s response time to emergency calls is seven to nine minutes, while Tumwater’s is more than nine minutes.

Why does response time matters?

In case of a medical emergency, for example, a cardiac arrest, Hurley said the critical time to give people emergency care is between four and six minutes. He said they see the highest survival rates for those patients with cardiac arrest. “But as time ticks on without appropriate care, we see irreversible damage.”

Hurley added that both fire departments respond to various medical calls in partnership with Medic One, which is a Thurston County program that provides Advanced Life Support through seven paramedic units that are located throughout the county.

Modern materials burn fast

In terms of fire, Carson explained that synthetic materials affect fire fighting. “We’re not talking about wood, we’re not talking about cotton, we are talking about synthetics, everything that we buy today to furnish our homes, the flooring, the couches, the pillows, the sheeting, everything is a synthetic base,” Carson said.

Carson cited a study by Underwriters Laboratories comparing synthetic-based or modern materials that fire grows faster than legacy/organic materials. 

“We are no longer dealing with legacy construction and organic materials in your homes. We’re not talking about wood. We are talking about synthetics. Everything that we buy today to furnish our homes – the flooring, the couches, the pillows, the sheeting – is a synthetic base,” Hurley said.

The other thing concerning, according to Carson, is the type of smoke it emits. He added black smoke displaces oxygen quickly.

With an RFA, Hurley said, they can provide a way to maintain and improve response times.

RFA funding

Tumwater City manager John Doan said the proposed RFA would be funded through four revenue sources:

  • County-wide EMS levy revenues that provide funds for Advanced Life Support (ALS) and some element of Basic Life Support (BLS)
  • Grants, contract revenues, service fees – Washington State pays a certain amount for services for state facilities in Olympia. Other revenues come from fees for services like permit reviews or sprinkler inspections
  • Property tax levy (fire levy) of up to $1/$1,000 Assessed Value
  • Fire Benefit Charge (FBC) – an annual fee on structures based on the estimated fire-fighting resources needed to combat a fire

Doan said the FBC formula is built on an industry-standard formula developed by the National Fire Academy and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Four of 13 Regional Fire Authorities in Washington use this formula, which is adjusted for each area. .

Q&A

After a 30-minute presentation, moderator Karen Meyer read questions from community members. She said they could not go through all questions and condensed a few inquiries that were the same.

A public attendee asked the panelists to explain the financial efficiency with $13.3 million from the property owners’ FBC fees.

Carson answered that having a training capacity for firefighters to be efficient at dealing with different situations.

“The environment we are all working in is becoming more diverse and specialized. It may not seem like a lot, but it means a lot to our firefighters to be efficient and proficient at dealing with the ever-changing environment we are currently working in,” Carson explained.

Doan said it means having human resources for RFA. He explained that hiring firefighters often takes a lot of time – with different testing and interview processes.

Cities’ existing “human resources folks are also involved in hiring police officers or hiring people for fire department or hiring street maintenance workers,” Doan noted.

“If we can’t hire firefighters fast enough, we end up paying overtime for those vacant positions that don’t have to be open that long,” Doan said, adding that the RFA would have its own human resources staff, “whose task is to hire firefighters and have those vacant positions filled even faster.”

Doan added if the two fire departments are merged, they wouldn’t need to have reserve engines for each of the six fire stations. “The three to four engines pool is enough for both cities instead of doing a duplicative group of reserve engines.”

Hurley added that having two battalion models means having 35 people on duty daily and 12 response units. “It adds another layer of safety in terms of response.”

Another attendee asked about the proportion of calls for fire and medical.

According to Carson, about 80% of call volume is EMS based. The 20% comprise different calls for services and a low percentage of structure fires.

“Don’t get fooled by that low percentage. When there is a structure fire, that is when we need capacity. When the need arises, you’ll want a full response,” Carson said.

The third question from a community member was about effectively merging fire departments without creating the FBC mechanism.

“It would be very difficult to do,” replied Olympia City manager Jay Burney.

Burney said they looked for a lot of options, but “the 2019 ESCI study pointed to regionalization as the best solution of how fire department might merge… for a number of reasons that [the] fire chiefs have pointed out.”

Doan added that having RFA would allow both cities to work collaboratively on public and community safety measures.