by Richard Uhlhorn
The future is already impacting Chelan Fire & Rescue’s district. “There are proposals for over 1,000 new residential units proposed for the Lake Chelan Valley,” said Fire Commission Chairman Russ Jones.
Commissioner Russ Jones
Jones stated that the District is not interested in running a new levy at this time. “I want to have a year’s conversation with the community,” said Jones. “When we do go for a levy increase, I want it already won.”
By law, the District is allowed to run a levy at $1.50 per thousand of assessed value, but Jones thinks the District will only ask for an estimated $1.09 per/1000 from the current tax levied at $.88 cents per 1000.
The Line Item cost per unit at the District.
The largest cost is for suppression personnel
Fire District are hamstrung to a one percent cap on what they can collect from the tax payers, which means that for every $100 collected, the cap restricts them to $101 the next year. “As the population grows, we can’t keep up,” Jones stated.
A $.21 cent increase from the current $.88 cent collected now would allow the District to hire two more full-time firefighters ($240,000), add $60,000 to help retain volunteers through the District’s stipend plan, and put $200,000 a year into the District’s apparatus equipment fund.
Myrna Duke, a retired Forest Service employee, stated that the District failed a levy attempt a year ago. “You found money to keep fire fighters,” she said. “Why?”
Jones replied that money came from the equipment fund. She then remarked that the District had the money to purchase a boat. Jones replied that the District paid $2,500 for a $200,000 boat and while it is true that the Chelan County Sheriff’s Department has the primary responsibility for operations on Lake Chelan, they don’t have the capability to go below the surface.
He further stated that one of the District’s rescue swimmers was near the recent drowning accident but wasn’t able to free dive the 55 feet to the victim. One of the District’s fire fighters came out with SCUBA gear and was able to retrieve the body on his own time. It took the Sheriff’s Department over one-half hour to respond to the scene.
The District, under the terms of purchasing the boat from the US Coast Guard, has to operate it for 18 months, after which the District could sell it.
Duke then asked how long it takes to get mutual aid to a fire situation. It was explained that mutual aid comes into play on a second alarm fire and can take up to 30 minutes to respond.
Commissioner Jay Witherbee remarked that consolidation would be nice, but getting voters approval would be extremely difficult because of the tribal attitude between Districts. “It’s almost impossible.”
Assistant Chief Brandon Asher said that under his grant to recruit and retain volunteers for Chelan, Entiat and Orondo, he has attracted 146 potential volunteers and that only 46 have remained. The cost of living is one of the problems in retaining volunteer firefighters. “We’ve lost four people to the Forest Service and some have gone to Alaska.”
“All of the positions we have hired are local and out of our volunteer base,” said Asher. He added that, unlike Wenatchee, the District doesn’t have enough living space for a resident program.
Chief Tim Lemon
At the beginning of the meeting, Chief Tim Lemon remarked to those attending the Town Hall that “We are your fire department… you own us! If we are going to maintain our services, we will need funding.”
The District covers 120 square miles. “We have to cover the city and we do get support from our neighbors,” said Lemon.
The District also participates in State Mobilization efforts for up to 14 days. “This generates revenue and gives our firefighters significant experience fighting fires to bring home.”
Chelan Fire also has vehicle extraction equipment including air bags; special rescue including water rescue swimmers, and high angle rescue capabilities.
The District conducts Fire Prevention efforts with inspections for defensible space and free smoke detectors.
Assistant Chief Brandon Asher (left) and Deputy Chief Mark Donnell
Chief Mark Donnell is in line to become the next Chief when Lemon retires later this year. He moved to Chelan in 2013 and joined the volunteer staff before accepting a job as Deputy Fire Chief.
Donnell told those in attendance that since 2010 there has been a 22 percent increase in calls, or over 200 more calls each year.
The laws concerning fire have also changed and made the job more dependent on trained personnel. There is a two in/one out law concerning structure fires. “Down in Washougal, the firefighters ignored this rule and made a tremendous save, but were fined by the State anyway,” said Donnell.
The District maintains 2 career staff on board 24/7 and a volunteer under a District stipend program plus volunteer shift personnel. The secondary response to fire are from the home volunteer base or career call back.
In the urban interface it takes the District no more than nine minutes to respond; in the suburban it is 10 minutes; and in the rural areas, 14 minutes 90 percent of the time.
Training is a major issue with the District. To become a firefighter 1 requires 212 hours of training; a firefighter II, another 116 hours. Hazardous certification take 40 hours of training in EMT status is 200 hour of training. Hi-Low Angle rescue takes 84 hours of training and rescue swimmers undergo 40 hours of training.
Assistant Chief Brandon Asher stated that the Department has 21 pieces of equipment, some of which is over 25 years old and more that is approaching that age. “It is important to keep equipment up to date,” said Asher. “Our goal is to slowly upgrade… the new ladder truck is an example. To replace this stuff takes funding.”
Jones remarked that the District’s succession plan is to move Donnell into the Chief’s position when Lemon retires. “He is a pretty good guy to take over. He has 29 years of experience.”
Jones also said without additional funding in the future the District would be forced to eliminate one chief’s position.
While the Town Hall was not well attended, Jones and the District plan on holding a series of Town Halls to engage with the public… to find out concerns and gather information.