Your fire district, your property taxes, your fire insurance, and you | Guest Column

Chief Steve Marler, San Juan Fire & Rescue - Contributed photo/Ken Clark
Chief Steve Marler, San Juan Fire & Rescue
— image credit: Contributed photo/Ken Clark

By Chief Steve Marler, San Juan Island Fire & Rescue

San Juan Island Fire & Rescue. (San Juan County Fire Protection District No. 3) was created by the voters in 1958, and serves San Juan, Brown and Pearl islands.

While the Town of Friday Harbor is not within the fire district boundaries, we provide fire protection for the town through a mutually beneficial contract and provides wildland fire suppression on non-ferry served islands via contract with the state Department of Natural Resources.

Most revenue comes from property taxes. State law limits a fire district like ours to a maximum tax-rate of $1 for each $1,000 of property value. Your district commissioners have always worked hard to limit expenses and keep the tax rate as low as practical.

As a result, property owners pay approximately 58 cents per $1,000 of property value. This year, some major changes are taking place, and you need to know why they’re happening and to be assured your taxes will not be going up because of them. The real goal is to reduce the insurance premiums that you pay.

San Juan Island Fire and Rescue maintains seven fire stations. Six are on San Juan Island, and one is on Brown Island. An obvious question is: “Why do we need so many fire stations for such a small area?”

The answer is: the insurance industry.

The Washington Surveying and Ratings Bureau is funded by the insurance industry and regulated by the state insurance commissioner. They assess the risk an insurance company assumes by issuing a fire insurance policy in any given community.

To accomplish that task, they have a “grading scale” that rates a community’s fire protection capabilities. One of the criteria is that every insured property must be within five miles of a fire station.

Right now, our main fire engines are 28 years old. They’re well maintained and still operate as if they were nearly new. But there’s a problem. When the Ratings Bureau grades a local fire department, they assign penalty points to fire engines that are more than 10 years old, regardless of their condition.

As more penalty points are assessed, a community's insurance premiums go up. Our solution? Your district commissioners authorized an early pay-off of outstanding bond debts, saving taxpayers about $250,000 per year. Since interest rates are very low right now, the commissioners chose to finance the purchase of new fire engines.

Soon, six identical new fire engines will be delivered to San Juan Island. Every fire station on the island will soon house an engine that is designed to meet our community's unique needs. And, it will require no new taxes or fees from you.

Another change is a joint project with the sheriff. We operate a small fireboat. It can pump 500 gallons of salt water per minute, and is designed to help out when a boat is on fire, or to supply water to firefighters battling a fire near the waterfront. Fireboat Confidence is a capable little boat. But, it has limited capabilities and no covered area to help keep firefighters.

Last year, with the assistance of the Department of Emergency Management and Congressman Rick Larsen, a federal grant was awarded to build a new public safety boat. "Sentinel" will be delivered to the county within the next week.

Sentinel has a 1,500-gallon-per-minute fire pump, triple our current capability. It will be a partnership between the sheriff, Fire District 3, and Shaw Island (Fire District No. 5).  Once the Sentinel is in service, we will sell the existing fire boat, reducing the number of taxpayer-funded boats while improving capabilities and firefighter safety.

The insurance industry gives credits for fire boats, so shore-side properties should benefit from this increased capability. Plus, in a major crisis, this boat will be able to supply water that can be transported anywhere on land, if need be.

Putting new fire engines and a new fire boat into service is only one part of the plan to satisfy the insurance industry and lower insurance premiums. The second one is more difficult to solve: We need more firefighters.

The reason we can operate at a tax rate that is roughly half of most fire agencies is our “paid-on-call” firefighters; our “volunteers”. Every time you see a fire engine drive by, know that all but three of our firefighting staff are volunteers.

They get a small hourly sum for their service but give up time away from work and family to protect all of us. The problem is that we need more people to fill those fire boots.

The insurance industry counts how many volunteer firefighters live within five miles of any fire station. If they don’t see enough, they don’t consider that fire station when measuring how far away a property is from the closest station.

Right now, there's a critical shortage of volunteers living near the fire stations at Roche Harbor, Cape San Juan and Sunset Point. But we could use more firefighters near every fire station.

Please consider joining our team. You have to be at least 18 years old. There's no maximum age, just a requirement to want to serve your community.

Our firefighters receive nationally accredited training, annual medical exams, state-of-the-art protective gear, paid training and response hours, and the satisfaction of knowing that as most people are running away from a crisis, they run toward it and work to save lives and property.


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