Chelan Fire and Rescue struggling with retention of volunteers

by Richard Uhlhorn

City Councilman Chris Baker joined Chelan Fire & Rescue’s virtual commission meeting on Wednesday, December 16. He told the commissioners that he thought he’d join in lieu of Ray Dobb’s departure from the City Council. “I’m not sure I’ll be the fire liaison between the City and you, but thought I’d join the meeting today.

Chief Mark Donnell reported that the City and Fire District have still not met regarding a City of Chelan Fire Protection Services Contract. Donnell hopes that meeting can take place in January.

The Department is financially at 95% of its budget currently and Donnell reported that there was a lot of revenues the District has not received yet. “Basically these revenes are from State Mobilizations,” said Donnell.

“November has been somewhat slow,” said Donnell. The staff responded to a vehicle fire on Hwy 97 and a structure fire up Washington Creek. “We get a better response on structure fires.” During daytime, it is hard to get volunteers to respond because they are working.

Operationally, the District has modified its response because of COVID. “We will respond if needed,” said Donnell who went on to report that Emergency Medical Services have not had a positive case on duty. “It’s (the virus) out there. We need to get through this thing (pandemic) without affecting our operations.”

Chelan will receive 1000 doses of the COVID vaccine and Lake Chelan Community Hospital staff and first responders will be able to receive their two required shots with the first installment of doses.

Assistant Chief Brandon Asher has been struggling to get more applicants to volunteer at Chelan, Entiat and Orondo Fire Districts. He reported that they have had one new application at Chelan and one at Entiat. He added that they lost one who moved to Idaho. “We have (recruitment) banners out.”

Currently, Station 71 has 19 volunteers; 72 has one; 73 has 7; 74 has 4; and 75 has 8. Asher said the Departments have to get the message out for volunteers to train and respond. We’ve got to get people coming in,” said Asher. The Department is offering hybrid classes which is a good time for volunteers to get certified. He has six individuals signed up for the EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) class.

Chairman Phil Moller asked if they all fit in with the departments training program. Asher replied they did and that training funds are available. Chief Donnell stated that the District is cost sharing with Wenatchee and that the Volunteer Academy comes at no cost. “Retention is tough,” said Donnell. “I don’t envision this improving.” He said it was a another reason to get education under the belt.

Board member Russ Jones said there is a District on the west side that gets 20,000 calls a year and has about 300 volunteers, but they have a large population to work from. “We are locked into the residents we have here,” said Jones. “There are only so many fish in the sea.”

Moller added that at some point the Department is going to have to go in a different direction. “What’s the next plan,” he asked. “We are spending a lot of money on volunteers.” He suggested that the money spent on volunteers might go towards hiring more full time staff firefighters. Donnell replied, “We cannot support a full staff department. We have to make some changes if we are going to remain a fire service.”

Moller stated that the department needs to protect the community professionally. Jones said that he would like to see a master list noting of why the volunteers left. Karyl Oules stated she has been pondering the issue. “We’ve got to do something different.” She wondered what kind of wild out of the box ideas are out there that might stick.

Donnell replied that he needs ideas for going out to the community. “I can give this community the fire service they want.” The issue is the need for more money in the future which means an increase in the M & O levy. “The bottom line is we are strapped with limited resources.” Oules replied that the District can’t be an Island and that regionalization is potentially the way to go.

Donnell said that mutual agreements between the Districts offset some of the problems. Oules asked if any other Chiefs out there were willing to look at regionalization? “We’ve failed how many levies? We are doing something wrong in that department,” stated Oules.

Donnell replied that if the District goes out for another levy, it has to do it right. “Ww are meeting with other Chiefs. It’s going to take the community.” Moller said that the cost to regionalize would be money well spent. “It would get rid of duplication of un-needed services.” Jones added that it isn’t about empire building, but about the community. Donnell said he would be happy to move aside if they could regionalize, but that if it happens it also needs to include EMS. “Seventy percent of EMS services are Fire Based. They could be trained for fire suppression as well.”

Jones said they need more commissioner meetings with other commissions. “We need to bring the commissioners together.”

The commissioners adopted one year of the 2021-2025 Strategic Plan and asked for an aggressive plan for community involvement. It was noted that 85% of Union Valley residents are involved in a fuel reduction program.

The District will put together another attempt at involving the community in an advisory committee, recognizing that the last advisory committee directed under a paid consultant was a failure. “We need to manage it internally,” said Donnell. Moller said he would like to see goals and objectives of that group. “There was so much floundering last time.”

Councilman Chris Baker stated that a Citizen’s Committee is a good idea, but mentioned that the vision the School District’s Advisory Committee didn’t do a good job of getting the vision to the community. “People who are being asked for money, want to know where it is going.”

Oules asked if it was proper as a Chelan commissioner to attend other District Commission meetings. Moller told her that they are open public meetings and that it wouldn’t hurt to know what they are planning. Jones stated that he had attended the Manson meeting and was welcomed. “It is neat to see other district and what they are discussing.”

Jones added that it is important that the community understand the one percent cap means. “People don’t understand that.” He asked for a new count of new structures in the valley since 2007 when the last M&O Levy was passed. “I’m sure it is several hundred and our service requirements have increased substantially.” Jones thought the District should continue to look at a way to put a surcharge on Short Term Rentals.

Dan Crandall, president of the Fireman’s Association told the Commissioners that 2020 has been a challenging year for fund raising. “We have been able to use the money raised the previous year.” He added that the Association has gone through half of its funds, but that they still have a cushion in the bank.

Crandall said that the Association has been able to do some good despite not being able to fund raise. They have built a storage shed, contributed funds to Thrive and the Okanogan Recovery Group along with contributing funds to a GoFund me campaign for the couple who lost their child in the 2020 fires and who were also burned badly.

The Association has donated $500 each month ($1,000 in December) to the Chelan Food Bank, purchased the Halloween candy, donated to the VFW luncheons, given money for the firefighters to go shopping with kids at Wall Mart, and purchased electronic equipment for Marine 71 despite the pandemic.

The Fire District commission meetings are held at 3:00 P.M. on the 3rd Wednesday of each month. Currently, they are being conducted on Zoom because of the pandemic.

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