SJ Island fire commission ratifies merger agreement

The consolidation of San Juan Island's two fire departments is — in effect — complete.

The San Juan Island Fire Department's board of commissioners put pen to paper late last week in approving a detailed agreement under which the department will provide fire protection for the Town of Friday Harbor over the long haul.

Approved Thursday by the commission, the inter-local agreement fleshes out a similar agreement ratified by the two entities in June, in which the town agreed to pay for fire protection at a cost equal to the amount that its neighboring fire department would collect in property taxes if the town was annexed into the department boundaries.

That amount equals roughly $250,000, according to San Juan Island Fire Chief Steve Marler.

The town has long-contracted with San Juan County Sheriff's Department for police protection as well.

As part of the agreement, San Juan fire department will lease the town's ladder truck, a recently purchased fire engine, the Fire Boat Confidence, and assorted tools and equipment. At the expiration of the lease agreements, the department will own that equipment.

Town Administrator King Fitch and Marler applauded the merger, which most recently resurfaced as a plan in December of last year. San Juan fire department first began providing fire protection for the town late last year following the departure of former town fire chief Vern Long.

“We’ve been hoping to accomplish the goal of a unified fire service for more than twenty years.” Fitch said. “It feels very good to be able to say that together we’ve finally accomplished this.”

Marler added, “This is one of those rare opportunities where everyone realizes a benefit. The Town realizes a cost savings. The fire district will receive a fair payment for their services. The island’s volunteer firefighters now receive standardized training and use one set of procedures.  Everyone can feel better knowing that the closest emergency help will respond, regardless of any boundary lines on a map.”

Founded in 1909, the Friday Harbor Fire Department provided protection within the town's boundaries, which, at slightly more than one square mile, is the island's most densely populated area and home of its commercial core.

San Juan Island Fire Department was created in 1958 after several independent neighborhood stations were established around the island and then sought to operate together. The department covers the 56 square miles outside town limits, as well as Brown and Pearl islands.

Though commissioned by separate entities, firefighters from the neighboring departments have long trained together and responded to emergency calls within each other's territory. Many have maintained, however, that the safest and most efficient way to operate would be as one entity.

Though no date has been set, officials of the town and fire department expect that voters — those within the department's boundaries and in the town — will be asked whether the department's boundaries should be expanded to include the town. In the meantime, the inter-local agreement is in effect through 2015.

“For the public, as well as the firefighters, the transition has been so smooth that there hasn’t been a noticeable difference or cause for concern,” Marler said.  “I look forward to a bright future for the island’s fire protection. The result of combining our resources is clearly more effective.”


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