Town, District 3 officials amicable in discussions about consolidating fire departments

Top photo: Joseph Quinn, a consultant for fire departments, reviews the various ways the town and district fire departments can consolidate, Sept. 16. Middle photo: Fire District Commissioner Bob Jarman and Friday Harbor Town Councilman Steve Hushebeck listen to Quinn
Top photo: Joseph Quinn, a consultant for fire departments, reviews the various ways the town and district fire departments can consolidate, Sept. 16. Middle photo: Fire District Commissioner Bob Jarman and Friday Harbor Town Councilman Steve Hushebeck listen to Quinn's presentation. Bottom photo: Former county assessor Paul Dossett warns of possible impacts to town property tax rates.
— image credit: Richard Walker

— This version corrects the amount of the fire district's property tax levy in the 11th paragraph. It also adds comment from town and district officials.

Commissioners of San Juan County Fire District 3 will have a special meeting Friday, 3 p.m., in the Mullis Street Fire Station to discuss the potential impact on the district in providing fire protection services to the Town of Friday Harbor.

The meeting is open to the public.

Town and district officials are discussing efficiencies that might result from having one fire department on the island; they met jointly on Sept. 16 and are expected to meet again in October.

At the Sept. 16 meeting, consultant Joseph F. Quinn outlined the ways the departments could come together:

— Consolidate the departments. The Town of Friday Harbor would contract with District 3 for fire protection services. The town would pay District 3 from the various funding sources that now fund the town fire department. (Town residents don't pay a tax levy for fire protection services; the department is funded by a mix of sales tax, property tax and other current fund revenue.)

— Establish a regional fire authority. A new political entity would oversee fire protection services on the island. The town and fire district would pay the fire authority for fire protection services; a fire authority board would be comprised of district and town representatives.

— Annex Friday Harbor into Fire District 3. Friday Harbor residents would pay the same property tax levy that other district residents do; funds currently allocated to the town fire department could be used for other needs, such as roads.

About the town fire department: The department's 2010 budget is $350,000. The department has one paid staff member — the chief — and 25 volunteer firefighters and support personnel. The department has one station, three engines, a medium rescue truck, the fire boat Confidence, the chief's car, the deputy chief's vehicle, and a duty officer's vehicle.

The department also owns a 1923 Cadillac fire engine purchased by the department in 1941 from the City of Mount Vernon for $128. The fully restored engine is now valued at more than $1 million.

About the district fire department: District 3 has a 2010 budget of $1.4 million. The department has six paid staff members and 35 volunteer firefighters. The department has six fire stations on San Juan Island, one station on Brown Island, and seven engines, two water tenders and two brush trucks. The department has a six-wheeled Gator with pump on Pearl Island, and is contracted by the state Department of Natural Resources to provide fire suppression on all non-ferry served islands.

District 3 residents pay a property tax levy of 41 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

Real benefit is improved fire protection service
Quinn, an attorney and consultant who has helped fire departments consolidate or merge for about 25 years, doubted there would be much financial savings from joining forces. The real benefit to all residents is improved fire protection service. "It's about being more efficient with what you have," he said. In his opinion, "San Juan Island doesn't need two fire departments."

Consolidation of the departments has long been a contentious issue. The town studied the issue in the 1990s, and determined there wouldn’t be enough savings to warrant consolidation. At the time, the town department was seen as more skilled in urban firefighting, the district department in rural firefighting.

During David Jones’ mayoralty (2006-09), a blue ribbon task force determined that there wasn’t enough benefit to the town to warrant consolidation.

But town and district fire officials worry about inconsistencies that they feel could be dangerous. Both departments have mutual aid agreements and have responded jointly to fires, the most famous being the May 2002 fire in downtown Friday Harbor. But the departments don’t train together regularly. Standard operating procedures are different. Bunker gear and tools are stored differently. Radios operate differently.

“The important thing is that they use the same procedures, that they talk the same talk, that they properly answer the alarm when it rings,” said District 3 Fire Chief Steve Marler, who is assisting the town duty officer while Town Fire Chief Vern Long is on medical leave.

District 3 Commission Chairman Albert Olsen said safety is the primary issue. “Every year, we start a joint training program and it happens for just a little bit. I would like to see us fight that fire as one department. But right now, we don't spend enough time training together.”

(The departments are starting to train together again. District 3 recently hosted town fire officers for vehicle fire training. On Sept. 25, district firefighters will go to the town station to train on Engine 11’s compressed air foam system.)

In an earlier interview, Mayor Carrie Lacher said of the potential merger of the administration of the town and district fire departments, "The council started that discussion during our working retreats during the summer, and it's something District 3 is interested in exploring. The town fire department relies on volunteers, so there's a special kind of vulnerability. If a joint venture with District 3 means we all can have good coverage all of the time, that would be to everybody's advantage."

While town and district officials are amicable in their discussion of consolidation, Quinn and Marler said the hardest part will be accepting a new identity.

Quinn said a consolidated department doesn’t mean uniform insignias and logos on trucks have to be changed. But Marler said it’s important to create a new name and insignia “to not foster a ‘them vs. us’ attitude.’” And that’s a tough change.

Marler was fire chief in Sonoma, Calif., when the Sonoma City Fire Department and Valley of the Moon Fire District merged and became Sonoma Valley Fire and Rescue. “The most contentious discussions had nothing to do with taxation or money. It was all identity-based stuff,” he said. “It doesn't matter what you propose, there’s going to be some group of people who feel they are losing their identity. But you don't have to forget your history and your legacy.”

Quinn gave the same recommendation he’s given to so many other fire departments considering consolidation: Move slowly. Start training together, and build from there. If the relationship develops to the point where something needs to be formalized, address it then.

“Rome wasn't built in a day,” he said. “And the island's been here a long time.”

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