VIFR upgrades fleet, starts renovation

As aid cars and engine arrive, VIFR begins big renovation

Just in time for its busy summer season, Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) has taken steps to improve its fleet and infrastructure — with two new ambulances, a new fire engine on the way, and a major renovation of its main fire station about to begin.

On Saturday, staff welcomed the public to celebrate its shiny modern ambulances with an old-fashioned tradition: “push-in” ceremonies to officially install the aid cars in its stations on Bank Road and Burton Drive.

A crowd of about 50 islanders joined district staff, board and volunteers for the occasion on Bank Road — which started with a history lesson by Fire Chief Matt Vinci.

The “push-in ceremony” tradition at fire stations dates back to the 1800s, Vinci explained, when horse-drawn firefighting were pushed back into fire stations after returning from service. With the advent of motorized apparatus, the push-in tradition evolved to retain its symbolic significance, he said.

“The fire service is entrenched in a lot of traditions,” he said. “A lot of these are positive in some ways, and some [others] we can retire, but this is one we don’t want to retire because it brings the community together to your fire station, and we’re here to serve you.”

The family-friendly events took place in front of the apparatus bays of both stations, where islanders young and old helped first responders push the two new aid cars into the stations.

At Station 55, on Bank Road — the first of the two ceremonies — Vinci took the microphone to thank the community for restoring a fire levy in 2023 which made the purchases possible, and show off the amenities of the aid car now stationed there.

“It’s a much safer vehicle for our staff and for our patients,” he said. “It has rollover protection, it has airbags in the back [and] specific seat belt systems in the back — multiple components that we built into it to ensure that our staff is safe and patients receive the highest level of care.”

Improvements to the district’s fleet were emphasized in the district’s latest strategic plan and also in the campaign for a “levy lid lift” measure approved by island voters in August 2023. During the levy campaign, Vinci and others repeatedly characterized the district’s aging fleet as costly to maintain and increasingly unsafe for island residents or fire district staff.

As of last week, the aid cars were fully in service on Vashon.

Cost of aid cars

Just days after Vashon voters approved the levy ask by just over 61 percent of Vashon, commissioners gave the green light for the district to purchase the two new ambulances. Custom-built by Horton Emergency Vehicles, they have replaced two VIFR ambulances that were 12 and 15 years old.

The diesel-fueled, four-wheel drive ambulances were built on 2022 Ford F550 truck bodies, but also equipped with lithium-ion batteries to reduce fuel costs and provide extra comfort while idling during long ferry transports.

The $825,962 total price tag for the two new vehicles included approximately $18,000 in discounts for pre-payment and the purchase of multiple units.

To pay for the ambulances, VIFR tapped a settlement of $748,843, received in 2023 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.

An additional $77,000 from the district’s vehicle reserve fund rounded out the payment for the aid cars.

Fire Engine

One more shiny big rig will also soon arrive on Vashon — a new fire engine.

In early October, VIFR commissioners voted unanimously to approve the purchase of the new engine at a total cost of $886,000, including sales tax. Their decision came on the heels of learning that two of the district’s current engines, both 23 years old, had failed their annual pump test and were immediately taken out of service. Given the advanced age and condition of the aging vehicles, the district authorized the repair of only one of them.

The new engine, a stock Pierce Enforcer Pumper truck purchased from Hughes Fire Equipment in Tacoma, was readied for service by Pierce Manufacturing, at its Florida plant. It will arrive in Tacoma at the end of this week, Vinci said at a June 26 board meeting. After another month of prep work in Tacoma, the engine will finally make its way to Vashon in early August, he said.

A stock engine was recommended for the purchase because custom-built fire engines now take up to two to three years to be delivered, Vinci said, due to supply chain and other issues. And at the June 26 board meeting, Vinci again said that VIFR was “extremely fortunate” to get the new engine so fast.

“There are a lot of agencies that are waiting three, four years for a build of that truck,” he said. “We were able to get a stock build slot and make some modifications to make that truck come onto Vashon — so we’re excited.”

The engine was purchased with funds taken from VIFR’s fleet reserve fund, resulting in a pre-payment discount of approximately $25,000.


Another major project long in the making will also soon be finally underway — the renovation of Station 55, on Bank Road, will begin on July 8 and continue for the next 10-12 months. Originally announced with a September start date, the project was moved up immediately after the district received its permits and bids.

Operations at the station will continue without interruption during the construction, with VIFR’s administrative staff now temporarily ensconced in the Penny Farcy building, directly across Bank Road from the fire station. First responders also have temporary housing — last week, a 60 foot by 24 foot modular housing unit was installed directly behind the Station 55. The unit has five bedrooms, two bathrooms, office and living space for first responders.

After-hours walk-in medical care and blood pressure checks for islanders will continue at their present location at Station 55.

The renovation of the station has been in the planning stages since 2021, under the administration of former fire chief Charles Krimmert.

The project will add 950 square feet of living space to the residential area of the station, new bathrooms, a kitchen, a patient exam room to better serve those who drive or walk into the station to receive aid, and a decontamination room to clean firefighting gear of carcinogens following firefights.

King County Medic One has chipped in $250,000 for the project, acknowledging the use of the fire station by its medics,Vinci said.

The renovation is an overdue necessity, he said, “being done for the health and safety of VIFR’s staff, volunteers, and community.”

But the project will not come without substantial cost.

The price tag for the project, first estimated at $3.2 million, rose substantially last month as bids by two builders came in for the project. With one bid at $4.09 million and another at $4.35 million, the lower bid, by Western Ventures Construction, was chosen. The company has built several fire stations in the region, Vinci said.

In an email, Vinci explained the sticker shock, and what steps commissioners have authorized to meet the additional expenditure.

The original $3.2 million budget was estimated based on the district’s work, over the last two years, with its architects and estimators. But during the permitting process, the district ran into several issues that increased the costs of the project.

These included addressing water, mold and structural decay in the existing building, as well as meeting requirements for disability access and compliance.

“We have significant water damage, mold and building decay to the extent that it was rotted through the building and you could see daylight in the lobby and administrative offices,” he said. “This will need to be addressed in this project [and] it did unexpectedly impact the costs of the project.”

Other significant increases in labor costs and plumbing, electrical and mechanical materials drove up the price — as well as the costs associated with securing and delivering labor and materials to the island, Vinci said.

So where will VIFR find the extra one million-plus bucks now needed for the project?

After a long discussion and a comprehensive presentation by staff, the board took action during a special board meeting on June 13 to unanimously award the contract to Western Ventures Construction.

Staff members also delivered a funding plan to the board to adjust the district’s 2024 budget to secure $400,000 that will be shifted to this project. It also proposes to budget $500,000 in the district’s 2025 budget, along with another reserve transfer of up to $500,000 — securing funds to pay for ancillary costs including architectural fees, sales tax, consultants and other currently unknown “soft costs” of the project.

According to Vinci, the district did explore the possibility of securing a low interest loan, but ruled out the idea because it would incur more than $100,000 in interest.

“The budget adjustments will not impact our operations and will only delay a few capital projects by one fiscal year,” Vinci said.

Correction: This article clarifies plans for a possible reserve transfer of up to $500,000 in 2025 to pay for ancillary soft costs of the renovation yet to be determined. The article, as it appeared in the July 4 print edition of The Beachcomber, stated the amount of this possible transfer without the the modifier “up to.” We regret the error.

VIFR Photo
The new ambulances have an updated patient layout that prioritizes safety and comfort.

VIFR Photo The new ambulances have an updated patient layout that prioritizes safety and comfort.


VIFR Photo The new ambulances have an updated patient layout that prioritizes safety and comfort.

VIFR Photo
One of the fire district’s new twin ambulances, at Station 56, in Burton.

VIFR Photo One of the fire district’s new twin ambulances, at Station 56, in Burton.

Elizabeth Shepherd Photo
Fire Chief Matt Vinci, with first responders, at a “push-in” ceremony held at Station 55 on Saturday to celebrate the arrival of two new ambulances on Vashon.

Elizabeth Shepherd Photo Fire Chief Matt Vinci, with first responders, at a “push-in” ceremony held at Station 55 on Saturday to celebrate the arrival of two new ambulances on Vashon.