Vashon Island Fire & Rescue has reached a new agreement with the local firefighters’ union that ensures a minimum of three career firefighters will be on duty at all times, while the district continues to train new volunteers and evaluates its new part-time staffing program.
This agreement with the union, finalized on Jan. 30, is a change from the former contract, which required two career firefighters as the minimum needed per shift. Previously, both union leaders and the district chiefs said two was an uncomfortably low number and insufficient to fight a fire or respond to simultaneous medical emergencies.
Assistant Chief Bob Larson last week addressed the benefits of the change in the case of fire.
“With three people you can go into rescue mode and do something; with only two you cannot,” he said.
He added that it was “not uncommon” last year to have only two career staff on duty. For this year, the schedule — which is already set — had only 10 or 11 shifts with two people on them. But more two-person shifts would have likely come up, if, for example, someone called in sick or otherwise could not come into work. Now, Larson said, those slots will be filled with someone working overtime to ensure three-person crews.
Union leaders raised concerns about staffing levels last year, and earlier this week, union President Randy Tonkin shared the union’s perspective on the recent changes, noting that increasing staffing was one of the goals Chief Charlie Krimmert addressed before the community voted on the levy in November.
Tonkin acknowledged the recent change in the agreement and said that union members would like to see four career firefighters on at all times for what he called “100 percent operational reliability.”
“This means that, regardless of ongoing calls for service and patient transports to hospitals, we would still have enough people available to respond to a very serious emergency like a significant automobile collision or a structure fire with entrapment,” he said in an email.
He added that “minimum staffing” is the minimum legal requirement, but that a typical residential fire requires at least seven to 10 capable firefighters.
“More people are necessary with challenges like difficult access. … Therefore, the minimum staffing number of career firefighters is only a portion of the overall emergency resource pool,” he added.
For his part, Krimmert said the district would always like more staff, but that he believes the increase to three career firefighters and two part-time paid staff — five people on per shift — is a large improvement for last year’s bare bones staffing.
The district hired two firefighters last year and two more this year. The newest two, both previously volunteers with the district, are completing a fire academy and will join the department fully in June.
The district also implemented a part-time paid staff program last year to help address its dwindling volunteer ranks and low staffing levels. Currently, that program has five shifts of two people and one shift that will have two by the end of the month, Larson said.
He added that the district leaders are still evaluating that program, but it has been helpful.
“It makes us feel more comfortable when we transport people off the island, so we have people to respond to the next call,” he said.
Tonkin expressed a measured view of the new program. He said that it can help the district improve reliability, but it does not solve its total capability problems, as most of those who want to take part in the program are entry-level EMTs and firefighters, who want to get hired into professional positions.
“They require a significant amount of training and oversight and cannot be expected to perform independently,” he said.
One of the reasons for staffing concerns at the district is that frequently, calls occur in clusters. In January, Larson said district personnel responded to 125 calls. Eighteen times there were two or more calls that occurred simultaneously.
In addition to implementing its part-time program, the district is currently running another firefighting academy, with four people in it who will serve on Vashon and three from Central Kitsap. Another volunteer academy is set for the summer, with at least four people for Vashon and seven from outside districts.
Another recent change at the district is the time and date of the commissioner meetings. They are now the last Wednesday of the month. The next meeting will be at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 28, at Station 55 on Bank Road. The public is welcome and encouraged to attend.