COMMENTARY: Without its people, a fire station is nothing

Brigitte Schran Brown writes about the importance of a town’s fire station.

Editor’s Note: Brigitte Schran Brown, whose term as a commissioner for Vashon Island Fire & Rescue (VIFR) ended in December, delivered this speech to fellow commissioners and the public at the district’s board meeting on Dec. 22. meeting. With her permission, we reprint a lightly edited version of the speech here, and thank Schran-Brown for her dedicated service to the district and community.

Last summer while visiting Charleston, South Carolina, I drove by a brand new fire station sitting in the middle of a field. Oddly the station was completely empty. There was not an engine, aid car, hose, set of bunker gear, stethoscope, or person in sight. Nothing.

Perplexed, I stopped and looked around.

The field in which the empty station stood housed only a flagpole and nine randomly placed pillars. I approached one, read its inscription — and then sank down in the grass and cried.

What I was seeing was the memorial to the Charleston Nine.

In 2007, a fire tore through a furniture store that had stood on this site. Nine firefighters died in the blaze. A pillar stood where each man had fallen.

The empty station was a memorial to them—a reminder that without its people, a fire station is nothing.

I wondered if something so horrific could happen on Vashon to the women and men I work with and love.

I read everything I could find about the Charleston Nine and in doing so five words kept cropping up repeatedly:

Trust. Training. Leadership. Funding. Equipment.

Recently, Vashon Island Fire and Rescue has taken a beating in terms of trust.

In the aftermath of Chief Krimmert’s disclosure of his initial vaccine refusal, the district was besieged with responses. Many questioned whether VIFR could be trusted to keep our community safe.

The answer then, now, and I pray always will be a resounding YES.

In spite of differences or conflicts, VIFR has always responded to the call. Any 9-1-1 call will be answered by a competent, capable, and compassionate crew.

I’ve witnessed firefighters who were at each other’s throats one minute become an unbreakable team the moment tones go out. And although Chief Krimmert and I have had our differences, when we respond together, we, too, become a solid team that works in harmony.

Yes, this community can trust VIFR fully. But trust is a two-way street and in turn, VIFR must also be able to trust our community.

My first task as a commissioner was to get the levy passed, and I pushed for the full amount knowing that anything less could not meet the needs of this district.

As my final act as commissioner, I beg our community to please continue to support our fire department fully and completely. I am angered when members of this community make statements like, “VIFR has too much money in reserve,” or “VIFR has a robust fleet of vehicles.” Those comments are invariably made by members of the public who do not respond to aid calls, attend board meetings, or have a clue what it is like in the trenches.

VIFR does not have a robust fleet of vehicles. Most of our vehicles are teenagers, and for those of us who own teenaged cars, we know they are not always reliable. For us, a breakdown is a nuisance. For fire departments, a vehicular breakdown can result in tragedy.

When someone is not breathing or is having a heart attack, minutes can stand between life and death. Fires can double in size every minute. If an aid rig or engine breaks down — which our old fleet frequently does — it can be catastrophic.

New aid cars cost between $150,000-300,000. An engine $600,000-$1,500,000.

SCBAs — sets of breathing apparatus that allow firefighters to enter burning buildings — cost almost $500,000. Laws mandate replacement cycles for these. One set of Bunker gear alone costs $4,000.

The tools of our trade are hugely expensive, which is why we must have a reserve. It is not a cushion or a luxury. It is necessary for our business of saving lives and property.

I beg my fellow community members to keep the full levy amount going. Without mutual aid, our island depends on it.

To our new board, I say: listen. Listen to your front-line, in-the-trenches staff. They, better than anyone, know what they need to do the job and keep our community safe.

And for my final act of service as a commissioner, I made a motion, which I then tabled for later discussion by members. It reads:

“Our mission statement is ‘Vashon Island Fire and Rescue is dedicated to the protection of life, property, and our environment.’ I propose a three-word change to this mission statement: ‘Vashon Island Fire and Rescue is dedicated to the protection of life, property, our environment, and each other.’”

Because as the memorial to the Charleston Nine reminds us, a fire station, without its people, is nothing.

Thank you for giving me the chance to serve — it has been a humbling six years.

I pray I will be able to run for this position again in a few years, and that the community will continue its trust and elect me again.

It hasn’t always been easy being both commissioner and a volunteer EMT, but I cannot understand how any district board can function without a member of its rank file serving on that board. I will continue to serve as a volunteer, and ask members of the community to step up as well.

We need you.

Brigitte Schran Brown served as a VIFR commissioner for the past six years and as a volunteer Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) for 17 years. She will continue to serve as an EMT for VIFR.