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Fire budget seeks to add firefighter

Vashon Island Fire & Rescue, which hasn’t seen an increase in its paid firefighting ranks since it hired its first firefighters in 2001, will add a ninth firefighter in 2010 if the commissioners approve Chief Hank Lipe’s proposed budget.

Lipe said he’s seeking a ninth firefighter in an effort to address one of his most vexing concerns — the department’s inability to handle multiple calls at once. What’s more, the number of calls the department receives has grown steadily over the last several years, taxing the small staff and sometimes leading to a troubling increase in the department’s response time, he added.

“We often, especially in the spring and summer, have simultaneous calls come in. And we’re really scraping to have enough people turn out,” Lipe said.

“We need to get another body out on the streets.”

The department will hold a public hearing on Lipe’s proposed $4.25 million budget on Monday, Nov. 23. The commissioners are expected to vote on the budget at their regularly scheduled meeting the following night.

“What’s driving this request is the department’s response time and its ability to handle all he calls that are coming in,” said Neal Philip, who chairs the five-member board.

The increased call volume and sometimes long response times have yet to result in a bad outcome, Philip said. “But it’s something that keeps the chief awake at night.”

Added Philip: “This isn’t going to solve the problem entirely, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

The number of calls in 2000 were around 1,000, Lipe said. Last year, the department had 1,436 calls; Lipe is expecting a slight increase in call volume again this year.

“One of the issues is our aging population,” Philip said. The increase in calls is not fire-related, he added. “It’s the medical calls. And it can stretch things pretty thin at times.”

But Lipe said his desire to increase the ranks of the paid firefighters doesn’t mean VIFR is beginning to move away from its status as combined department — where volunteers from the community and from off-Island join forces with career firefighters to respond to calls.

Indeed, his budget calls for another new position — a half-time volunteer recruitment and retention specialist. Currently, Lipe noted, the department has around 100 people on its volunteer roster. “We’re just not utilizing them well,” he said.

The specialist, he said, would work with the department’s newly hired second in command, George Brown, to reshape the volunteer program to fit the Island’s changing demographics — where a growing number of people work off-Island and have busy family lives.

“The system we’re working with is a system that was built in the 1970s, and we need to build it for the second decade of the 21st century,” Lipe said.

Lipe’s proposed $4.25 million budget reflects a modest increase over this year’s $4.14 million spending plan. The growth, however, won’t cost Island taxpayers any more money, he said. After a year of effort, Lipe was able to get King County to give Vashon an additional $175,000 in Medic One funds, money that Lipe successfully argued the Island had coming to it.

As a result, he said, “We’ve got a better revenue stream for 2010.”

The budget includes other shifts in spending and priorities, Lipe said, but the most significant is the additional firefighter. The department hired its eight firefighters and eight paramedics in 2001, he said, when it moved away from its all-volunteer status. This is the first time a new firefighter would be added, he said.

With benefits, a new firefighter costs the department almost $60,000, he said. But Lipe said he believes it makes sense — not only because it’ll enable the district to respond to multiple calls more easily but because a ninth person could help to cover personnel shortages due to injuries or other leaves.

The department’s overtime budget is high, he noted: This year, it’s expected to log in at $80,000. An additional person will help to reduce those costs.

Jason Everett, who heads the firefighters’ union, International Association of Firefighters, Local 4189, said he supports Lipe’s efforts but says they don’t go far enough.

In June, at Lipe’s request, the union offered its input on the department’s needs and suggested four additional firefighters, he said. Even so, he added, he’s encouraged by Lipe’s call for a ninth firefighter.

“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Everett said. “It’s not adequate, but it might be the best we can do, given the budget.”

The union, he added, also continues to support a robust volunteer program. Such a stance is unusual among firefighting unions, he noted. But on Vashon, the career firefighters recognize the Island’s vulnerability — there aren’t any neighboring departments, for instance, that could easily step in during an emergency — and thus its need to fill out its ranks with volunteers, he said.

“We need more staffing, and it should be paid people,” Everett said. “But we also recognize the value of a strong volunteer program in our community in order to meet community needs. We recognize that Vashon is different.”

Budget hearing

A public hearing on the fire department’s proposed budget will be held at 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 23, at Station 55 on Bank Road. The commissioners are expected to vote on the budget at their regularly scheduled meeting at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 24, also at the station.

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