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Vashon Fire & Rescue buys house in Burton for volunteer firefighters

Vashon Island Fire & Rescue decided to purchase a Burton home last week to house volunteer firefighters — a move that officials say will enable it to lower aid call response times significantly for the southern half of Vashon Island.

The house is a stone’s throw from the Burton fire station, a building the department can’t expand. Purchasing a home so close to the station — with its small fleet of emergency vehicles — will permit on-duty volunteers in Burton to respond more quickly to calls than could a volunteer asleep in his or her bed a mile or two from the fire station. And the Burton home cost a quarter of what it could cost to remodel or expand the fire station, were the district able to do that, said Fire Chief Hank Lipe.

Four volunteers can stay at the four-bedroom home 800 feet from the fire station. Officials say their goal is to have that many sleeping at the home every night.

It takes seven minutes for an ambulance to make it from Fire Station 55 on Bank Road to Burton, said Vashon Island Fire & Rescue Assistant Chief George Brown. Having a crew of volunteers at the ready yards away from the Burton fire station will reduce response times significantly and could make a big difference in future aid calls on south Vashon. Twenty-five to 30 percent of Vashon’s emergency calls come from the areas in Burton and south on Vashon Island, Lipe said.

“For either a fire, a heart attack or a stroke, every minute counts, and the quicker you can get somebody there to get the situation under control, the better chance you have of a successful outcome,” said Neal Philip, who chairs VIFR’s fire commission. Purchasing the Burton house “is a great opportunity to improve the service to the Island, especially the outer areas. … We all want to make sure that every call is covered well. This house is going to help us do that.”

The fire department hopes to close the real estate deal on June 7, said Lipe. The department is paying $437,000 for the house outright — part from its healthy reserve fund and part from this year’s operating budget, he said. He’s confident the house purchase is a good investment. Given today’s real estate climate, the district was able to get a good deal on the home, he said, and if for some reason the house is no longer necessary to the district, VIFR will be able to sell the property and recoup its expenses.

The residential purchase comes on the heels of a new program at the fire department to better organize the district’s volunteers so that a quarter of VIFR’s 56 volunteers are on duty every fourth day, a program that’s worked well since its implementation in February, Lipe said.

Next up for the district is staffing the Burton house with volunteers, which it hopes to begin doing in July, he said.

When the Burton property comes online, the Vashon fire department could draw more off-Island volunteers because there will be a place for them to sleep. Currently, the main fire station on Bank Road is able to sleep seven firefighters, of which four are paid staff. The three volunteer beds are often filled with off-Island volunteers, though on-Island volunteers are welcome to spend a night shift there as well, Brown said. Having four extra spaces for volunteers could help attract them to the department, which has striven for years to swell the ranks of its volunteer force.

At the same time, the fire department has hired two part-time recruitment and retention coordinators, who will work to attract volunteers to the Vashon fire department and keep them active once they begin volunteering. The two, volunteer firefighters before being hired, will present a plan for recruiting and retaining volunteers to the chief and assistant chief this week.

“We’re fired up about the volunteer program, basically, and it’s a top priority this year,” Lipe said. “We want to be able to offer individuals an opportunity they can’t say no to. Having that house down in Burton and building the volunteer program go hand in hand.”

Still in Vashon Island Fire & Rescue’s future is a solution to the issue of response times on southern Maury Island.

Though a few dedicated firefighters live close to the Dockton fire station and respond to many calls, there are times when the first aid car available comes from Station 55 on Bank Road, meaning response times can be dangerously high. It takes aid cars the longest to get to southern Maury, Lipe said, and the department is still examining ways it can best reduce response times to that area.

For now, fire officials are excited about their acquisition in Burton and the progress they believe they’re making on an issue that’s been a concern at the small department for years.

“Reducing times will save lives,” Lipe said. “Typically speaking, to do this takes years because you have to build new facilities. I’m ecstatic we’ll be able to do that in just one month and make a positive difference for the people of Vashon.”

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