East Jefferson Fire Rescue town halls focus on lid lift

Ballot measure to go before voters on Feb. 14

CHIMACUM — Fire station 13 is located in one of East Jefferson Fire Rescue’s busiest service areas, but it has no heating, bathroom and, significantly, no firefighters.

Located on Airport Road just west of state Highway 19, it is one of three unstaffed stations that together respond to almost 20 percent of EJFR’s calls.

It is representative of EJFR’s problems detailed in its strategic plan that led its commissioners to approve a request for a levy lid lift on the Feb. 14 ballot — problems Fire Chief Bret Black laid out in a series of town hall meetings, the last of which is at 6 p.m. Thursday.

The hybrid event will be at the Port Ludlow Beach Club, 121 Marina View Drive. To join by Zoom, go to https://www.ejfr.org/uncategorized/february-2023-ballot-measure and click on the link. The ID is 832 6427 0049; the passcode is 986078.

Calls have increased by almost 50 percent since 2011 — the last year the district had a voter-approved tax increase. The number of first responders hasn’t kept pace with demand, which has resulted in longer response times.

At the same time, the number of simultaneous incidents has nearly doubled over the past four years and now makes up more than 30 percent the district’s calls.

“Our current staffing level is insufficient,” Black said. “Best practices says 16 to 17, and we have nine. We get two to three calls at a time, and right away we’re tied up.”

There has simply not been enough money to hire the firefighters and medical personnel the district needs or to replace its aging fire engines and ambulances, he said.

To try to meet its 2023 budget, EJFR postponed $2,422,459 in vehicle and equipment purchases. It eliminated $1 million more in training, fuel, safety gear, tools and facility repairs like painting.

Despite cuts that Black said “pared us down to the bone,” the district still will be $2.2 million over budget. That will force another round of deficit spending and reduce its reserves from the current level of 52 percent to 34 percent by the end of the year.

The levy is essential to reverse years of delayed maintenance, bring staffing up to the level it should be and get EJFR back on its feet so it can respond quickly and effectively to emergencies, Black said.

“This will help the enormous needs we have as an organization,” Black said.

Proposition 1 would raise the fire levy to $1.30, and Proposition 2 would return the EMS levy to $0.50. Passing the levies would generate $2,359,632 in additional revenue, end the deficit spending and start the process of addressing items cut from the budget.

The merger of Port Ludlow Fire & Rescue into EJFR approved by voters in November and that went effect Jan. 1 married two underfunded and overburdend districts.

Although Black said there had been benefits to the merger, specifically in the hiring of a battalion chief and a medical services officer, there were still too few personnel (13) between the districts covering too large of an area (123 square miles).

With just half of EJFR’s six stations staffed by on-duty firefighters and EMS professionals, it relies heavily on volunteers to handle calls at its unstaffed stations (Fire Station 13, Station 12 on Marrowstone Island and Fire Station 14 in Cape George).

“Station 13 is in the middle of the district, and we are seeing a pretty significant rise in the number of calls — more than 500 a year,” Black said.

However, fewer people are signing up to volunteer — another challenge for a district struggling to maintain its professional force.

“We love our volunteers and we really need more,” Black said. “You’ll see them come to Station 13 in the middle of the night when there’s a structure fire. They’re integral. At the fire in Cape George, the water tenders really saved our bacon.”

Information about the ballot measure can be found on EJFR’s website: tinyurl.com/yckvv3fe.

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Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached at paula.hunt@soundpublishing.com.

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