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Vashon Fire & Rescue revamps volunteer response

Flames engulfed a small Vashon cottage in the early hours of Feb. 7. Firefighters rolled hose down the 1,000-foot driveway, while tenders full of water pulled up to the scene and prepared to distribute their liquid cargo to the blazing structure.

The incident was soon under control, as volunteers and paid staff doused the unoccupied structure and took stock of the scene.

Though the cottage was a total loss, fire department officials and those who fought the middle-of-the-night blaze said the event exemplified the department’s new protocol for how department volunteers respond to fires and aid calls.

Vashon Island Fire & Rescue established a system this month where volunteers work in 12- to 24-hour shifts to ensure the Island is prepared for a large incident or back-to-back emergency calls.

Volunteers and officials are heralding the shift system as the answer to the longstanding issues of response times and volunteerism on Vashon. When two or three emergencies take place in a row, there will be volunteers ready to respond to the scene in person and with aid cars, fire trucks and water tenders.

“This is huge,” said Fire Chief Hank Lipe. “I just couldn’t be any happier.”

Before Feb. 1, the fire department employed a loose volunteer system where each volunteer was expected to listen to a department pager at all times and respond to emergency calls whenever possible.

When two or three calls came in back to back, there was little structure dictating which volunteers would respond to which call, or if anyone would respond at all.

“It was tough to sleep at night when that was going on,” Lipe said. “It was very worrisome. With this system in place, I think everybody sleeps a little better.”

Last month, Assistant Chief George Brown, who was hired in the fall and was charged with the task of rethinking the volunteer system, met with the volunteer force to find out if improvements could be made to the former system.

Together, they came up with a better way, dividing the on- and off-Island volunteers into four shifts, with each shift of 13 people on call every fourth day.

“This puts you on a schedule so you know this is the time you need to respond, which is much more focused,” said volunteer EMT Yolanda San Miguel, who has worked with the fire department for three years. “I like it a lot, and I think it’s going to work out for the better.”

It’s a system, Brown and volunteers said, that allows volunteers to take time off but, when they’re on duty, be prepared to respond to any emergency calls that come in.

“I wanted to have more predictability,” Brown said. “Before, (volunteers) had a minimum number of calls they had to meet in a year, but there was no known person responsible for calls in a given day. You could have 10 people show up on a call when you only needed one or two, and have nobody show up when you needed them.”

The volunteer response before this month was “sporadic,” Lipe said, with some frequent responders feeling burnt out by the responsibility of listening to emergency calls on their pagers all the time. Some volunteers turned their pagers off at times, Lipe noted.

“It gives you the flexibility to say, ‘Every fourth day, I’m on, and the rest of the time I can turn my pager off,’” said Jason Aberthal, the volunteer officer who heads Shift A, which he’s affectionately nicknamed the A-Team. “Something had to be done. The system that was there wasn’t working — we just weren’t getting people to respond.”

Aberthal has volunteered with the fire department for more than 20 years and was a founding member of the Explorers, a fire department volunteering program for teens, in 1989. He said the new shift system has rejuvenated him and renewed his dedication to volunteering.

“This is my payback to the community,” he said.

To ensure that all volunteers will know when a major incident takes place, they’ve been given a second pager that only goes off for “all-calls,” or major emergencies that require assistance from every available volunteer.

The 3 a.m. cottage fire on the Reddings Beach Loop was one such incident.

Not only did the staff firefighters and on-duty shift volunteers respond to the scene, but so did Chief Lipe and a cadre of off-duty volunteers, who, roused from sleep by their all-call pagers, knew that a major incident was taking place on the Island.

In all, more than 20 people showed up on the early Sunday morning and worked through the incident like a well-oiled machine, said volunteer firefighter Michael Rugg, a member of the D Shift.

“Normally, on an incident like that, there’s usually a handful of us volunteers, plus the paid staff,” he said. “It was one of the first times I thought, ‘This is pretty cool. We have more people here.’ We worked well together; everybody had a place and everybody was doing their job. ... It was running so smoothly.”

Rugg, who is San Miguel’s partner, said an added benefit of the new shift system is that he’s felt a boost in friendly banter among the volunteers, staff and officers at the combination fire department.

“That’s the biggest change,” he said. “It feels like there’s such camaraderie there.”

For a department that’s seen much turmoil in the five years Rugg has volunteered there — from chief turnover to major lawsuits — having a feeling of cooperation and fellowship is a big deal, he said.

“I’ve always felt it, but now it seems like there’s just this great feeling for everyone,” he said. “There’s no other word to describe it than camaraderie.”

Aberthal concurred.

“There’s more morale in the department now than there has been in the last 10 years,” he said. “There’s a lot of good-natured fun amongst the shifts. We’re all there for each other.”

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