Fire chiefs explain why Tumwater and Olympia need a regional fire authority

By Lorilyn C. Lirio

Tumwater Fire Chief Brian Hurley said the creation of a Regional Fire Service (RFA) is the best way to address the challenges facing the fire services in Olympia and Tumwater.

The RFA Planning Committee held an hour-long online meeting at Town Hall last night, August 15, to discuss the potential RFA and its benefits to community members in Tumwater and ‘Olympia. The meeting was attended by 11 committee panelists and 22 community members.

According to Hurley, Olympia and Tumwater have a total of six fire stations. They are staffed 24/7 with different response units.

Hurley said those two cities have a combined full-time workforce of 150 people, covering more than 38 square miles and serving more than 81,000 residents. “The two agencies are on a combined total of about 20,000 responses per year.”

The challenges of firefighters

Hurley said six jurisdictions commissioned a study from Emergency Services Consulting International (ESCI) in 2019. “What they did was they looked at opportunities to gain efficiencies. One of the things that came out of that study was the idea of ​​a regional fire authority.”

The study also identified challenges, including the limited resources of the two fire departments and the need to maintain the communities’ growing fire/EMS (emergency medical service) needs.

Olympia Fire Chief Todd Carson said the community is growing, so service requests continue to grow. “Cities have done a great job of trying to meet this demand for services. But the resources and the demands exceed these revenues.”

The other challenge identified is the decline in average fire/EMS response time, according to Hurley.

Carson said call volumes are increasing every year. They aim to reduce response time to six to seven minutes or less for 90% of calls.

The Tumwater Fire Chief said both towns were below. He said Olympia’s response time to emergency calls was seven to nine minutes, while Tumwater’s was over nine minutes.

Why is response time important?

In the event of a medical emergency, such as cardiac arrest, Hurley said the critical time to give people emergency care is between four and six minutes. He said they are seeing the highest survival rates for cardiac arrest patients. “But as time passes without proper care, we see irreversible damage.”

Hurley added that the two fire departments respond to various medical calls in partnership with Medic One, which is a Thurston County program that provides advanced life support through seven paramedic units located throughout the county.

Modern materials burn quickly

In terms of fire, Carson explained that synthetic materials affect firefighting. “We’re not talking about wood, we’re not talking about cotton, we’re talking about synthetics, everything we buy today to furnish our homes, floors, sofas, pillows, sheets, everything is made from synthetic,” Carson said.

Carson cited an Underwriters Laboratories study comparing synthetic or modern materials that grow faster in fire than legacy/organic materials.

“We are no longer dealing with legacy constructions and organic materials in your homes. We are not talking about wood. We are talking about synthetics. Everything we buy today to furnish our homes – flooring, sofas, pillows, the tarp – is a synthetic base, Hurley said.

The other thing concerning, according to Carson, is the type of smoke it emits. He added that black smoke quickly displaces oxygen.

With an RFA, Hurley said, they can provide a way to maintain and improve response times.

FRG funding

Tumwater City manager John Doan said the proposed RFA would be funded by four sources of revenue:

  • Revenues from countywide EMS levies that provide funds for Advanced Life Support (ALS) and some elements of Basic Life Support (BLS)
  • Grants, Contract Revenue, Service Fees – Washington State pays a certain amount for services to state facilities in Olympia. Other revenue comes from fees for services such as permit reviews or sprinkler inspections
  • Property tax levy (fire tax) up to $1/$1,000 assessed value
  • Fire Benefit Charge (FBC) – an annual charge on structures based on estimated firefighting resources needed to fight a fire

Doan said the FBC formula is based on an industry standard formula developed by the National Fire Academy and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Four of the 13 regional fire authorities in Washington use this formula, which is adjusted for each zone. .

Questions and answers

After a 30-minute presentation, moderator Karen Meyer read questions from community members. She said they couldn’t go through all the questions and condensed a few inquiries that were the same.

A public participant asked the panelists to explain financial efficiency with $13.3 million coming from landlord FBC fees.

Carson responded that having a training capability for firefighters to be effective in dealing with different situations.

“The environment in which we all work is becoming increasingly diverse and specialized. It may not seem like a lot, but it means a lot to our firefighters to be efficient and skilled in dealing with the ever-changing environment in which we are currently working on,” explained Carson.

Doan said that means having human resources for RFA. He explained that hiring firefighters is often time-consuming – with different testing and interviewing processes.

“Cities’ existing human resources are also involved in hiring police officers or hiring people for firefighters or hiring street maintenance workers,” Doan noted.

“If we can’t hire firefighters fast enough, we end up paying overtime for vacancies that don’t have to be open that long,” Doan said, adding that the RFA would have its own human resources staff, ” whose task is to hire firefighters and fill these vacancies even faster.”

Doan added that if the two fire departments were merged, they wouldn’t need to have spare engines for each of the six fire stations. “The pool of three to four engines is enough for both cities instead of creating a duplicate reserve engine pool.”

Hurley added that having two battalion models means having 35 people on daily duty and 12 response units. “It adds another layer of security in terms of response.”

Another participant asked about the proportion of fire and medical calls.

According to Carson, approximately 80% of call volume is EMS based. The 20% is made up of various service calls and a small percentage of structural fires.

“Don’t be fooled by this low percentage. When there’s a structural fire, that’s when we need capacity. When the need arises, you’ll want a full response,” Carson said.

The third question from a community member was about effectively merging the fire departments without creating the FBC mechanism.

“That would be very difficult to do,” replied Olympia City manager Jay Burney.

Burney said they were looking at many options, but “the 2019 ESCI study indicated that regionalization was the best solution for fire service amalgamation…for a number of reasons that [the] said the fire chiefs. »

Doan added that having RFA would allow the two cities to work collaboratively on public and community safety measures.