With the passage of Vashon Island Fire & Rescue’s Aug. 1 levy lid lift ballot measure, the district’s commissioners are now implementing improvements made possible by the increased taxpayer revenue.
Last week, Fire Chief Matt Vinci also announced the hire of two additional career firefighters, Kyle Myers and Josh Hernandez, who will join VIFR’s staff after 20 weeks of intensive training with the South King County Training Consortium.
After Myers and Hernandez complete their training, the district’s total count of career firefighters/EMTS will stand at 20. This will allow VIFR to staff the district’s main station (Station 55) with four shifts of five firefighters each — a key goal for Vinci since he became fire chief in August of 2022.
At the time of Vinci’s hire, the district’s career staff had shrunk to only nine firefighters, due to retirements, resignations and moves to jobs in other districts by local first responders.
The lack of staffing, Vinci and commissioners said, caused steep costs for overtime, staff exhaustion and burnout, and a high number of dangerous “Zone 1 callbacks” — fire district parlance for times when the station was emptied of responders during simultaneous 911 calls.
During his tenure, Vinci has also restructured VIFR’s staff to include two new division chiefs and new administrative positions
The district’s plan to staff the Burton Fire Station is now being finalized, Vinci said.
On Aug. 3, commissioners voted to authorize the purchase of a new, 615 square foot, two-bedroom modular housing structure to house two full-time career fighters at the district’s Burton Fire Station (56), starting in November.
The reopening of Station 56 was recommended, per VIFR’s 2023 strategic plan, to improve emergency response times island-wide and also prevent the possibility of home insurance costs rising for hundreds of island residents who live in neighborhoods on the island’s southern end.
Staffing Station 56 was also central to the campaign for the levy’s passage.
The new modular structure, to be placed in the existing parking area on the western side of Burton Station, is now on order from its manufacturer, Wolf Industries. The housing and its installation cost the district $146,350 — an amount transferred from the district’s reserve fund.
On Aug. 3, commissioners also gave the green light for the district to purchase two new ambulances — a step to upgrading several aging vehicles in VIFR’s fleet.
The new emergency vehicles, to be custom-built by Horton Emergency Vehicles and delivered to Vashon next January, will replace two VIFR ambulances that are now 11 and 14 years old.
The diesel-fueled, four-wheel drive ambulances will be built on 2022 Ford F550 truck bodies — saving the district in fuel costs and also providing more safety and comfort for both staff and passengers, said Vinci. They also will come equipped with a lithium-ion battery which will allow the vehicle to be powered in the ferry lines and the ferry.
The total price tag for the two new vehicles was $825,962, which included approximately $18,000 in discounts for pre-payment and the purchase of multiple units.
To pay for the ambulances, VIFR tapped a windfall settlement of $748,843, recently received from the federal government’s Ground Emergency Medical Transport Program (GEMT), which provides supplemental payments to close the gap between the district’s actual costs and amounts received from transporting Washington Apple Health (Medicaid) patients.
Previous to Vinci’s tenure as fire chief, VIFR had not participated in the program, despite its eligibility to do so.
The district’s 2023 budget estimated an approximate $318,000 GEMT settlement, but the actual settlement far exceeded that, Vinci said.
An additional $77,000 from the district’s vehicle reserve fund rounded out the payment for the aid cars.
The contract to purchase the vehicles was made through Sourcewell, a purchasing cooperative — an arrangement that is legally required in order for the district not to engage in a competitive bidding process for purchases of equipment over $40,000.
Two district properties for sale
At the Aug. 3 meeting, commissioners approved the sale of two district properties.
The first, at 11983 Vashon Hwy. SW is the north-end fire station that has been out of service for 20 years and is currently empty.
The second property, at 10011 SW Bank Road, adjacent to the VIFR’s Penny Farcy Training Center, is currently being leased to King County for its use as a sheriff’s office and courthouse. The fire district’s long-term lease of the building to the county, said Vinci, is disadvantageous to VIFR, resulting in the building costing more to operate than it receives in revenue.
As of press time, the buildings had not been listed for sale.
Also at the meeting, commissioners approved a motion, after a closed executive session, to amend Vinci’s contract to eliminate the requirement that he retain his certification as an EMT in Washington State.
The motion passed 4-1, with Commissioner Candy McCullough as the only no vote. There was no discussion of the motion or vote.
In a phone call, Vinci said that the vote did not preclude him from being certified in Washington State as an EMT in the future, but he explained that he had not had time to do the training and other work necessary to receive the certification in the past year, given his often seven-day-a-week workload at VIFR.
Previously, he held an EMT certification for more than 20 years in Vermont, he said.
The issue of Vashon’s fire chief’s requirement to serve as an EMT has come up before.
In August and September of 2021, then-chief Charles Krimmert asked the board to release him from his duty to maintain his status as an EMT so that he could continue to serve as the district’s chief without having to meet Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate for public employees.
The board declined to do so, and Krimmert got the shot in late September.
Inslee’s now-rescinded vaccination mandate was not a factor in Vinci’s request to be relieved of the requirement to be certified as an EMT.
“I’m double vaxxed and triple boosted,” Vinci said. “I’m a proponent of the vaccine.”
Rather, the issue was one of prioritizing all the many duties of his leadership of the district.
“I would have to go off island several days a week, for up to six months, to attend the class to be certified, and I don’t have the bandwidth to do that,” he said. “My time is better served managing and building out our fire and emergency medical system on the island.”