Last week, Vashon Island Fire and Rescue (VIFR) welcomed eight new firefighter/emergency medical technicians (EMTs) to its staff — a significant step in fulfilling the goal of new Fire Chief Matt Vinci and the current board of commissioners to increase staffing in the district.
The new recruits are now undergoing a two-week orientation at the district — a process Vinci described as a way to ensure that they are “ready physically, and mentally, and have a good support system here in the department and at home.”
As part of the orientation, the recruits also attended a two-day health and wellness retreat at Camp Burton for all current VIFR members, including commissioners, volunteers, and career staff, presented by a nationally recognized program, O2X Human Performance.
The retreat, held on Jan. 28 and 29, included sessions on yoga, mindfulness, nutrition, sleep management and strength training — and even a presentation for the spouses of VIFR members.
A grant of nearly $20,000, from Granny’s Attic, augmented with money allocated from VIFR’s budget, funded the retreat. In planning the event, Vinci obtained mutual aid from members of Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority, Mountain View Fire and Rescue and Skyway Fire Department, who answered aid calls on Vashon that day, at no cost to the district.
In describing the event, Vinci said that it had been “exactly what VIFR needed” — detailing how the program addressed both physical and emotional challenges entailed in the work of first responders.
“Strength training and cardio are great, but you have to be eating correctly and taking care of your mind, body, and soul,” he said, calling the retreat an important step in VIFR’s investment in its staff and families.
“I was incredibly impressed by the level of engagement by our members — we are one team, with one mission, pulling in the same direction,” he said.
Recruits head next to academy
In the coming weeks, the training and orientation of VIFR’s newly hired career staff will continue.
One of the new recruits, islander Brian Lee, is a lateral hire, who previously worked for the Everett Fire Department. He will go on his first shift at VIFR on Feb. 5, while continuing his orientation with the district.
The other seven new recruits will depart for the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority Recruit Academy Training Program on Feb. 6, for training that will last for a total of 20 weeks, ending in early July.
Currently, VIFR has 13 career firefighters/EMTs on its staff — a number that now includes Lee.
Vinci and the board of commissioners have budgeted for 20 full-time staff members and will meet that goal when the seven additional new recruits return from academy training and become probationary firefighters.
Since becoming chief last summer, Vinci has repeatedly stressed the need for more career staff, citing a high number of “zone one callbacks” in the district — fire service parlance for times when the fire station is emptied of responders, and additional volunteers and off-duty staff are summoned back to the station in the event another call comes in.
With too few firefighters on staff, Vinci has also said, the district had experienced costs in overtime expenditures as well as risked burnout of both career and volunteer staff.
Response times, Vinci said, are a top priority for VIFR.
“A fire doubles in size every minute it goes without suppression, and you have a much smaller chance for survival from trauma or cardiac arrest without CPR or medical care every minute that goes by,” he said. “Response times matter, they matter in terms of outcomes. We want the best favorable outcome we can get for our community which means saving lives and saving property. To do that you have to have the right amount of human resources and you have to get them there in a quick amount of time.”
New hires have diverse experience
In speaking about Vashon’s new firefighters, Vinci described their qualifications and life experiences.
Their hiring process, he said, included a written test, a physical fitness test, and interviews with two panels before selection. After selection, the recruits had to go through a psychological test, background check, and medical and physical test.
Those hired, he said, have diverse backgrounds, with some having extensive experience in fire service and others being new to the profession.
One new recruit, Justin Merle, has attempted to climb Mount Everest 12 times, summiting nine times, and worked as a hiking guide all over the world, most recently in Antarctica.
Another recruit, Vinci said, was a previous U.S. State Department employee.
Yulanda Dowell, another new recruit, will join the ranks of just over a handful of full-time career female firefighters and EMTs at VIFR.
These former VIFR members include Kathy Bonner, a full-time career paramedic who was instrumental, many say, in paving the way for other women in the department. Leslie Pohl, Janet Williams, Gina Ball, Jen Bessler and Cari Coll were also full-time career firefighters who also served as paramedics or EMTs for VIFR. Coll, who recently retired from VIFR after 21 years of service, was also VIFR’s battalion chief of training and safety.
Dowell, VIFR’s new hire, has a background that includes coaching wrestling at Fife High School, said Vinci.
More hiring to come
With the hire of eight firefighters now accomplished, Vinci will turn his attention to completing a restructuring of district leadership, with the hire of two new division chiefs, to replace VIFR’s past positions of assistant chief and battalion chief.
Vinci was originally hired as assistant chief of the district, but with his promotion to the role of fire chief, that role was not filled. And in early January, VIFR’s battalion chief of training and safety, Cari Coll, retired after 21 years of service at VIFR.
The new division chiefs will both be on the same level and report to Vinci. One, he said, would oversee training and support services, while the other will oversee fire and emergency medical services operations.
VIFR is accepting applications for the two positions until Feb. 20. Interviews will tentatively be held from March 6-10.
Vinci aims to appoint the positions in late March — a time he looks forward to.
“I’m wearing a couple of hats right now,” he said. “Our staff is picking up a lot of the extra work. I’m appreciative of [their] work — they’ve stepped up.”
Once the new division chief for training and support services is appointed, recruitment and training for more volunteer firefighters and EMTs can fully begin, he said.
Currently, there are three main groups of volunteers at VIFR — firefighters, EMTs, and support personnel, who perform tasks including driving vehicles and moving water. Training for new volunteers, Vinci said, should start in the early spring.
Strategic plan to be presented
As the administrative and firefighter/EMT positions are being filled and trained, Vinci has continued to work with his senior management team and the VIFR board of commissioners on other goals for 2023 outlined in VIFR’s Community-Based Fire and Emergency Medical Services Strategic Plan, announced in August of 2022.
Vinci reported that VIFR is now on step eight of the 10-step strategic plan announced last August, which has thus far been well received by islanders.
Community input, he said, had included a survey that garnered almost 330 responses. VIFR also conducted an internal survey on the same topics.
A few important meetings are coming up, with one open to the public, regarding the strategic plan.
A public meeting, with an option to also attend by Zoom, will take place from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 16, at Penny Farcy Memorial Training Center.
The meeting will include a presentation by Dynamix Consulting Group, the facilitator of the strategic plan.
Also on Feb. 16, but prior to the public meeting, the strategic plan will be presented to members of the Vashon Rotary and VashonBePrepared.
VIFR will also engage with additional community stakeholders from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Feb. 17, to discuss the plan and report feedback that was received the night before from the community.
Those invited to the Feb. 17 meeting include commissioners, members of Vashon’s school board and business community, as well as leaders from Vashon Rotary and VashonBePrepared.
Vinci, reflecting on all the activity of his now seven-month tenure at VIFR, said that he has been grateful to meet and receive valuable feedback from islanders over this time period, as well as work with the district’s highly qualified staff.
“[Moving to Vashon] has been a great experience — I love it,” he said. “I’m proud to lead the organization, I’m proud of our staff and the work they do every day … It’s one great team of good people who really have it in their hearts to make sure they take care of people daily.”
A previous version of this article, both online and in The Beachcomber’s print edition of Feb. 2, erred in saying that VIFR’s new staff member, Yulanda Dowell, was the second-ever full-time female career firefighter on VIFR’s staff. The article is now clarified and corrected to recognize additional trail-blazing female career staff at VIFR: Kathy Bonner, a full-time career paramedic who was instrumental, many say, in paving the way for other women in the department, and Leslie Pohl, Janet Williams, Gina Ball, Jen Bessler and Cari Coll, who were also full-time career firefighters who also served as paramedics or EMTs for VIFR. Coll was also VIFR’s battalion chief of training and safety.
An incorrect day of the week was listed for an upcoming public meeting regarding VIFR’s new strategic plan. The meeting takes place at 6 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 16 — not Friday, as we mistakenly first reported in this article.
We strive for accuracy and regret the errors.