Fire chief looks ahead to an eventful year

Chief Hank Lipe waves the Pirate flag at a Vashon Pirate Youth Football party Saturday. - Sy Bean photo
Chief Hank Lipe waves the Pirate flag at a Vashon Pirate Youth Football party Saturday.
— image credit: Sy Bean photo

Fire Chief Hank Lipe has been playing a lot of catchup in his first year on the job.

Last August, he walked into a fire department that was hurting — its finances were messy, a major discrimination lawsuit was pending against it and its staffing setup wasn’t quite right.

So it’s little wonder that in his first 12 months, Lipe has done a lot of housekeeping. He’s made fiscal changes recommended by a state auditor, helped the department face a hefty legal judgment and eliminated some staff positions while redefining others.

But all this housekeeping has meant less time for some of the priorities Lipe set out when he arrived on Vashon a year ago: bolstering the Island’s volunteer firefighting and EMT force and lowering response times, which are slower than Lipe would like and occasionally exceed 20 minutes.

“A year sounds like a long time, but I’m still in my learning curve,” said Lipe, who left a fire department in New Hampshire to come to Vashon. “With the district, I came in at a very unsettling time.”

Since arriving on the Rock, Lipe, 54, has dived into Island life. He’s become a board member of Vashon Pirate Youth Football, whose Web site he designed with his daughter Shannon, and joined the Vashon Fraternal Order of Eagles. He’s planning to become a Rotarian as well.

But the majority of his time has been eaten up this year by the much-needed cleanup efforts at the district.

He’s hired an Island CPA to manage the district’s finances, dealt with the repercussions of a legal battle the district lost — when a judge found the fire department had discriminated against a female volunteer firefighter — and hired an assistant chief whom he believes will be able to help him begin the hard work of tackling the volunteer and response time issues.

In the last seven months, Lipe also played a leading role in crafting the Island’s first comprehensive emergency management plan, a collaborative effort among the many Island entities that need to work together in the event of a major emergency.

“No question, he’s leading the department in the right direction,” said fire board chair Neal Philip of Lipe.

“The fact that he’s doing all he’s doing on top of dealing with all kinds of problems he didn’t cause ... says so much about his character and his dedication to the department,” Philip added. “He’s not just a presence in the firehouse; he’s actually committed to making changes and working toward the long term.”

Lipe said he’s looking forward to the arrival of George Brown, the department’s newly hired assistant chief of operations, expected to begin work in October.

“He’ll redefine and rebuild the response model,” Lipe said — a model that’s not working as well today as it once did.

“I come from an environment that has faster response times,” Lipe said. “I think with the combo (volunteer and paid) department, and the amount of people who are here, that the numbers are reasonable but not great.”

He’d like to bring absolute and average response times down, he said, and he’s hoping, with Brown’s help, to formulate a plan to do so.

In the month of July, the department’s slowest response time to a medical call was a little more than 22 minutes, while its average response to a medical call was seven and a half minutes. Of the 87 medical calls the department received last month, the quickest the fire department arrived on the scene was in one minute, 17 seconds.

As for the five fire-related calls in July, the quickest response was three minutes, 41 seconds; the longest took eight and a half minutes.

But Lipe said when someone needs help in Manzanita Beach, on the southern tip of Maury Island, he’s worried the response times won’t be good enough if no one in the Dockton area is able to respond to the call.

A major effort Lipe undertook this year to lower response times was equipping volunteer firefighters with “GO kits,” which contain EMS supplies, a radio and a portable defibrillator.

“They’re keeping them with them personally,” Lipe said, “so they’re responding right from their houses.”

He’s also working, he said, to recruit and retain more quality volunteer firefighters.

About 60 are in the active volunteer roster today — though half don’t live on Vashon and some do not spend as much time volunteering as district officials would like.

All volunteers must respond to 24 emergency calls each year or spend two shifts per month on call to be considered an active volunteer.

Earlier this summer,

the fire department, in conjunction with VashonBePrepared, spent $6,000 mailing out a newsletter that included a call for volunteer firefighters.

Nineteen people responded, six of whom enrolled in this fall’s volunteer recruit academy. Of those six, only one lives on the Island. Some people who volunteer with the department but don’t live on Vashon see their volunteer role as a foot in the door in the firefighting industry.

And though only one Islander is enrolled in this fall’s academy, Lipe said he’s glad to have gotten 19 people through the firehouse doors who wanted to become volunteers.

The six who are enrolled are high-caliber individuals, he added: They passed physical and psychological evaluations and have clean driving and criminal records.

“Six people maybe doesn’t sound like a lot, but I’ll take 10 percent of my force of good quality people any day,” Lipe said.

Additionally, Lipe has instated a requirement for Vashon’s off-Island volunteers: They will now have to spend two 10- to 12-hour shifts on the Island each month at the ready for an emergency, he said. This addresses a common concern — that off-Island volunteers can’t help unless they happen to be on Vashon at the time an emergency call comes in.

“We’d like to have more, but we’re happy to have as many people as we can,” Philip said. “We’ll continue seeking out volunteers, getting more people into the academies and letting people know regardless of what their abilities are, we can use any help they want to provide. ... There are so many different ways you can assist in the department. That is something we are continuing trying to improve upon.”

Firefighter Jason Everett, who heads the Island’s firefighter union, said Lipe is aware that the volunteer infrastructure needs improvement.

“He’s working on it,” Everett said. “He’s got what it takes to do what’s needed.”

Looking both back at the chief’s first year and ahead to the issues still in the works, Everett said the chief is the leader the department needs to improve the services it offers the community.

“I think the chief is the right guy for the job at the right time,” Everett said. “He has the skills needed and the personality necessary to take the department to the next level. ... You can’t just walk in and start fixing stuff; you need to get the lay of the land, and I think he’s done that, and he knows what still needs to be done.”

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