Orcas Island fire commissioners look to sunset fire marshal agreement

A change is coming to enforcement of the Uniform Fire Code for businesses and new construction on Orcas Island.

Orcas Fire District commissioners voted unanimously Oct. 13 to continue participating in the interlocal agreement to administer the fire marshal program — for now.

“We're participating at a much higher level. It's quite different than six months ago, but it's still our cost,” Commissioner Clyde Duke said.

Commissioner Jim Coffin called for renegotiating the agreement and including a sunset clause by next year's budget.

“It was intended to be temporary,” Coffin said of the interlocal agreement.

A meeting of officials from all fire districts in San Juan County had been held that afternoon aboard the inter-island ferry. Lopez, Orcas, San Juan and Shaw fire district officials gathered to plan for the immediate future of the program. Founded three years ago, it was created to address a void in fire marshal services.

State law requires each county to maintain personnel responsible for enforcing the Uniform Fire Code. At the time, the districts entered into a joint agreement to support a fire marshal position, there was not an active fire marshal office that provided fire prevention education or comprehensive code enforcement. The position has been described as an "in name only" role combined with other county responsibilities. The interlocal agreement includes Robert Low as county fire marshal.

"It's the nature of our business that I have to worry about the safety of where you lay your head at night," Orcas Fire Chief Mike Harris told The Islands' Sounder of the importance of effective code enforcement.

When the islands' fire districts came together to create an effective fire marshal program that they would administer for the county, it was intended to be self-sustaining.

"I don't think anybody really believed they had to help pay for revenue shortfalls," San Juan Island Fire Chief Steve Marler told The Sounder.

With the dearth of new construction this year, less fees have been collected from inspections, leaving a deficit remaining in the program.

"Now we're stuck in a catch-22," Marler said. "They need more fees to make it self-supporting."

When the county and the fire districts first created the contract position, the county was expected to help make up the difference between actual costs and revenue collected from fees.

With an abundance of businesses, Orcas Island has the most Fire Code enforcement activity of the districts. Because Friday Harbor is a municipality, it has its own fire marshal.

Orcas Fire Lt. Paul Turner has served by contract as deputy fire marshal since June, but began doing inspections in months previous. Turner has collected roughly $1,100 in inspection fees, and given free fire prevention education to more than 100 Orcas businesses and residents.

Turner's deputy role is paid for solely by Orcas Fire, but all the revenue collected through his activities goes to the program founded collectively by all the districts.

Duke said communicating the value of the program has been a challenge on Orcas and he would like to improve public relations about the fire marshal's duties as well as see Orcas Fire putting in less revenue toward it.

"It started out as we're going to help get this going," Duke said in the meeting aboard the ferry. "We need to find a way to make it sustainable."

Referring to the support Orcas Fire has contributed via personnel and participation in the joint agreement, Harris said, "I would be using that money in many ways. We were all trying to facilitate the county's legal requirement to have a fire marshal and turn it into something more than a rubber stamp like it had been in the past."

All of the districts would like to see the county run the whole program as envisioned in state law, but they don't want to see sporadic code enforcement as before.

"If anyone pulls out right now, the others could not afford to fill that gap," Marler said. "They are mutually dependent on each other right now."

Another impact of an effective fire marshal program is the likely reduction of fire insurance rates for all of Orcas and San Juan as well as the other districts. Washington Survey and Rating Bureau rates on a scale 1 through 10, with 1 meaning the most effective fire protection.

"(The) number affects the rate that your fire insurance costs are," Marler said.

When the bureau last rated San Juan, it did not give credit for the current, now threatened, fire marshal program.

"As a fire marshal, my responsibility is to serve the public," Low said.

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