Lid Lift Proposed for August Primary Election Ballot

Langley, WA –South Whidbey Fire/EMS is asking voters to approve a Fire Levy lid lift of $0.30 per $1,000 of assessed property value during the August Primary Election. Of this amount, $0.07/$1,000 would replace aging apparatus. The remaining $0.23/$1,000 would hire up to eight full-time firefighters to respond to higher call volumes.

Prior to COVID-19, the Fire District has been sharing the challenges it is facing to provide an adequate emergency response. Apparatus and staffing deficiencies led to a downgrade in the Fire District’s community insurance rating last year. This rating is linked to how much property owners pay in home and business insurance premiums.

Funding to replace apparatus is pretty straightforward. The agency must replace fire engines and other pieces of equipment once they are past their usable lives and become unreliable to respond to calls. It has maintained some of its fire engines for longer, and now they need to be replaced.

A more critical priority is the agency’s need for full-time firefighter/EMTs. The Fire District primarily relies on volunteers to respond to calls with some part-time paid personnel. Call volumes have increased 12 percent for the Fire District since 2014. It lost 30 percent of its volunteers during the recession, and now six also are unavailable because they or a family member are considered a high-risk population due to COVID-19. This can cause the Fire District to scramble for responders when an emergency call comes in.

For a fire department that relies on volunteers, the National Fire Protection Association requires six firefighters on scene of a fire within 14 minutes. This standard should be met 80 percent of the time. South Whidbey Fire/EMS meets this standard approximately half the time.

The Fire District has four part-time paid personnel during daytime (7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.) when call volumes are highest and most volunteers are unavailable. It supplements part-time paid personnel with volunteers, but this number continues to decline. In 2015, the average number of firefighters responding was 4.78 compared to 4.37 in 2019.

During evenings (from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.) and weekends, the agency relies on one duty officer and volunteers. This number, too, has fallen from an average of 4.6 firefighters responding in 2015 to 4.44 in 2019.

“Most fire districts have paid firefighters on call 24/7, but we don’t,” said Fire Chief Rusty Palmer. “We want our community to understand that call volumes have increased to such a point where we need full-time staffing.”

Chief Palmer says that full-time firefighters would guarantee a 24/7 emergency response for the South Whidbey community and meet the NFPA standard. It also would improve response times.

For example, volunteers often have to go from home to a fire station to collect apparatus before deploying to an emergency call. Full-time firefighters would respond directly from a station, which would save time during an emergency.

Providing flexibility for volunteers also is important. Chief Rusty Palmer says that adding full-time personnel would help the volunteer program thrive.

“Volunteers are the backbone of our organization,” he explained. “The issue is that call volumes are increasing, and we need more of their time than they are able to give. We’re burning them out, and we want to keep them involved.”

If the lid lift is approved by voters, the Fire Levy rate would change from $0.65 to $0.95 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. (By way of comparison, the Fire Levy rate for the Fire District was $1.00 in 1990.) The additional cost would be approximately $10 per month for the owner of a $400,000 home. If passed in 2020, the lid lift would start being collected in the spring of 2021.

More information about the fire levy lid lift can be found on the website at www.swfe.org under “Public Information.” Community members with questions also are encouraged to contact Chief Rusty Palmer at 360-321-1533 or chief@swfe.org.

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South Whidbey Fire/EMS provides emergency services to 15,600 people over 66 square miles. The fire district has some full-time and part-time personnel, but relies primarily on volunteers to respond to an average of 2,600 calls a year. The fire district operates under a balanced budget and has a proud history of passing its financial and accountability audits by the state. In 2017, it earned a double-A rating with a leading bond agency because of its sound financial practices.