I started in the fire service as a volunteer firefighter in 1985. I soon found how rewarding it was to provide this service to my community. Three years later, I decided to begin testing for a full time career and landed in Duvall, Washington. Since then, I’ve worked for three separate fire departments, serving in every capacity, from firefighter to fire chief.
Now, I’ve come to East Pierce Fire and Rescue as your Fire Chief. What I have found is a dedicated team that wants to provide quality service to the public, and have the ability to meet your needs. I have also found that funding issues have created turmoil for both the department and the community it serves.
Since arriving at East Pierce Fire in June of this year, I have learned a great deal about the department and the diverse area that we serve. Our 152-square-mile jurisdiction includes the communities of Bonney Lake, Sumner, Lake Tapps, South Prairie, the Ridge Communities, Milton and Edgewood, with a good deal of rural areas in between.
I have also learned that we respond to more alarms than other departments that have more resources and larger populations to protect. This is a busy place—and it is only getting busier. We have already seen a 12 percent jump in emergency medical (EMS) calls since 2011. Part of the increase is due to an aging population, but part is due to growth in our area. The influx of multifamily housing and senior assisted living centers, particularly in Milton and Edgewood, will put added pressure on an already strained system.
By necessity, the department has had to be creative in seeking solutions to the issues that challenge it. But regardless of how creative we are, additional revenue will be necessary in order to provide the quality service that this community deserves.
Over the last several years, our department has grown quickly through a combination of consolidations and population expansion. This growth combined with the recession and reduced tax revenues, has left us with some serious capital needs that must be addressed in the next few years. Most of our emergency vehicles need to be replaced in the near future. In addition, some facility maintenance will add to the already mounting cost of making up the ground lost due to deferred vehicle and facility maintenance during the recession.
Our only option will be to finance those purchases and projects. We do have a small reserve account, but it’s not enough to address the needs, as we have put off many purchases due to the recession. When we ask you to finance those projects, we will be transparent, and explain the needs, the costs and where the money will go.
The firefighters and staff here have worked hard to maintain service delivery in the face of significantly reduced revenues. Programs and training have been placed on hold, or deeply cut. Vacant positions have not been filled. Several important community outreach and public education efforts were reduced or eliminated. Emergency response has been impacted by reducing the daily staffing of firefighters from 23 to 21. While that doesn’t sound like much, it meant placing the ladder truck out of service. With rapid growth in our call volume, these cut backs have not only been difficult, but are potentially tragic.
To meet your needs today and to address the rapid growth in call volume, we will need your assistance in providing additional funding. I know that’s not what most folks want to hear, but for the amount of services that we provide, we are operating on a shoestring budget.
Currently, our revenues are based on approximately $1.96 per $1,000 of assessed property value—well below some of our neighboring fire departments that operate near $3.00 per $1,000 of assessed value. As property values fell during the recession, the taxes paid to East Pierce dropped by more than 30%. While property values are once again growing; we are limited by a legislated one percent growth cap. That doesn’t even cover the cost of inflation, let alone the ever-increasing cost of medical supplies and other necessary equipment we need to save lives.
My initial tasks include:
1. Rebuilding and strengthening relationships,
2. stabilizing our budget and,
3. setting the direction of our department to address community needs.
Your firefighters and staff have worked hard to fill the gaps left by underfunding. However, that rubber band can only be stretched for so long before it breaks. It will take the combined efforts of the fire district and the community it serves to support the excellent fire, rescue and EMS service you expect and deserve. I look forward to working with you. If you would like me to address your club, homeowners association, or any other group, email me at email@example.com to schedule a time to meet and discuss your needs and that of your fire department.
East Pierce Fire Chief