L to R: Doug Gelsleichter and Eddie Swanson, both volunteer firefighters for the Key Peninsula Fire Department, are seen here in a training exercise called a “simulated quick attack with a 3-man engine company.” A crew of four is desired to make a safe initial attack on a fire. Swanson says “the community population is growing but the fire staffing is staying the same, and minimum staff isn’t guaranteed.” Photo by Mindi LaRose, KP News

For the fourth time in as many years, Fire District 16 will ask voters to approve a “lid lift proposition” on Nov. 2.  The proposition “will authorize the property tax levy rate of $1.09 per $1,000 of assessed valuation for 2010 tax collections,” according to the official ballot description, an increase of 22 cents above the current level.

Voter approval is needed to override Initiative 747, which limits annual property tax collection to 101 percent of the previous year’s revenue.

Voters already approved a higher rate of $1.50 per $1,000 value in 2004, according to the Pierce County Auditor’s office.

Three levy votes since 2004 have failed, with the last levy losing by 422 votes out of 3,366 in the Aug. 18 primary election, according to the auditor’s records.

“I’ve had some good questions from the community,” said Fire Chief Tom Lique.  “’Why do you need the money, where would it go, what does 22 cents mean to the fire department?’ If you use our current assessed values, it’s about $342,000.  That’s what the 22 cents means.”

“We’ve got an estimated shortfall now of $253,000,” said Lique, because assessments are lower than expected or people aren’t able to pay their assessed property tax. “If I go into a levy-less 2010, I’ve got to save at least that much.”  That could mean consolidating crews to one station, selling engines, and not filling vacant firefighter positions, he said.

Key Peninsula firefighters will be hosting meetings to discuss the levy and listen to the public Oct. 1 and 12, 6:30 to 9:30 p.m., at the Whitmore Room in the Key Peninsula Civic Center.

Fire district stats:
–Key Pen population in 2000 was 15,061 according to the U.S. Census.

FD emergency calls:

Year to date: 1,254
EMS: 869
Fire: 59
Other 326

Total calls for
:
2008: 1,918
2007: 1,864
2006: 2,119 (winter wind storm year)
2005: 1,768

The department also needs to fund the first quarter of 2010 with “carryover” money from 2009, said Lique. “Right now, we’re carrying about $500,000 from this year to cover the first three months of next year.  The problem is we spend about $265,000 a month.  Passing the levy means we keep the service level, but it doesn’t fund the next carryover.”

MANPOWER
“We’re very visible,” said volunteer firefighter Lt. Anne Nesbit.  “You can see rigs coming and going all the time, but manpower-wise we’re very limited.”

“I’m the lieutenant of the Home Station and the Longbranch Station, and I’ve got roughly 10 volunteers under me, but there are only two–including me–who can fight a fire,” said Nesbit.

“We’ve got minimum staffing of four career firefighters, two of those being paramedics, 24 hours a day,” Division Chief Chuck West said.  “If you have everybody there–nobody’s sick and nobody’s on vacation–you could have six or seven career people on duty at one time.”

“That isn’t even enough on the scene to make an initial interior attack,” said career firefighter Lt. Gary Way.  “And that’s the law, that’s not just our ideal.”

Way was commanding an engine backing up a medic call July 29 near the Herron Island ferry dock when he was called to a fire in the 7000 block of Lackey Road.  Way said he had two firefighters with him, both volunteers.

“It was two mobile homes and a motor home, a few cars, a boat and a brush fire,” said Way.

“We ended up with about 15 people there but really we needed 30 and it took probably two hours to get that 15,” said Way.  “City of Tacoma will roll up on a house fire with 25 to 27 people on the first alarm and they’re there within 10 minutes.”  Over the next six hours, the fire destroyed all of the structures, vehicles and brush in a two-acre area, he said.

The total staff of the fire department fluctuates between 53 and 55, said West.  Thirty-five are volunteers, but only 15 of those are firefighters.  There are 20 career firefighters certified to fight fires, including the four-day chiefs, said Lique.

“What’s happened over the years is that staffing hasn’t increased to meet the increased population,” said West.  “We’re sitting in a place where we failed three levies, so during that time everything has stayed stagnant except for the demand for service and the cost of providing it.”

TAXES OR POLITICS?
“How many failures at the polls is it going to take for this commission and the department itself to recognize the serious public relations problem that they have to address?“ said local resident Mike Abernathy at the Sept. 8 meeting of the Key Peninsula Fire Commission. “The public has got the impression that nothing they can say or do is going to affect what this commission does, or what the union is going to do, so they go to the polls and they vote against it.”

Longtime resident and 40 year volunteer firefighter veteran Wally Cornman also spoke at the meeting.

“I have no animosity against the two commissioners, Mr. Yanity and Mr. Bosch, but I think, for the good of the fire department and for the good of the community, both of them should hand in their resignations,” Cornman said. “The only reason you’re getting a ‘no’ vote on the levy is the squabbling between them two.”

“Everybody wants to discount the ‘no’ vote as a Bosch issue or a Bosch- Yanity issue, when it’s maybe the signs they’re putting in your yards,” said Fire Commissioner Jim Bosch during the meeting.  “[The sign] doesn’t say Bosch-Yanity,… it says ‘no new taxes.’  It’s not a new tax, it’s a reauthorization of a tax for 22 cents…  The articles you read in the paper are about drug testing, physical fitness, new taxes.  It’s not Bosch-Yanity.”

Fire Commissioner Allen Yanity, who was absent from the Sept. 8 meeting, opposed the three previous levies and is opposed to the fourth.

“I hate to do it this way,” said Yanity.  “Our fire department does need increased funds, but the reason I was elected was to bring physical fitness and drug testing to our department.”

“A firefighter should be as fit when he’s 40 as he is when he gets hired. Our union claims they are, but I can’t believe that,” said Yanity.

A QUESTION OF CONDITION

“We use the Wellness Initiative of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the International Association of Firefighters,” said Lique, who is not part of the union.

“There’s not an employee or volunteer working in our department that I’ve been told by the doctor is unfit to be here,” said Lique.

“How many of our firefighters could put on all the bunker gear and climb a ladder with a 70 pound hose on their back?” said Yanity.  “I cannot believe that even Chief Tom Lique can do that.”

“I’m not out to fire Tom Lique, don’t get me wrong,” Yanity said, “but if something goes wrong, and we’ve got overweight firefighters [on safety back-up], are they really going to be able to rescue their people on the inside?”

“I could stand to lose 15 or 20 pounds,” said Lique, “and me and other crew members have been working pretty rigorously on that since I’ve been chief.  But I am fit to go into a fire.”  A hose pack weighs 45 pounds, he said.

DRUG TESTING
The “Statement Against” the levy which Commissioner Yanity submitted for the November election Voter’s Pamphlet says in part, “Can a firefighter be so drunk that he falls on a patient and not have an alcohol problem?”

“There was an incident with alcohol at a training conference out of town earlier this year,” said Lique.  “It didn’t happen in an emergency situation, it didn’t happen with a real patient.  The member was immediately removed from the conference and returned to the department and disciplined.  It’s not what Commissioner Yanity is leading people to believe.

“The expectations are very clear about these conferences, which include training and have social events where sometimes there is alcohol,” said Lique.

The department has a strict suspicion-based drug and alcohol policy, said Lique.  “If you come to work smelling of alcohol or appear impaired you’re gonna go get tested,” said Lique.  “That’s happened twice that I’m aware of in the last 10 years.  In one case the employee was terminated, in the second case the employee was clean.”

“In my mind, if you come to work drunk you’ve got a real problem,” said Yanity, who wants to implement random drug testing.  “Part of fitness is being substance-abuse free.  If you’re not using, what’s the big deal about random drug testing? ”

“We don’t have the factual basis required for random drug testing here,” said administrative attorney Joe Quinn, at the Sept. 8 commissioners’ meeting. Quinn represents many fire districts in Western Washington, including the Key Pen.  “To my knowledge, there is only one district that has random, suspicion-less drug testing and that’s King County.  We’ve already got suspicion-based drug testing in place by policy, so what the heck is this debate about? It’s a bogus issue,” said Quinn.

“I do not believe that the public thinks there is a widespread drug problem in the department,” said Mike Abernathy after the meeting. “They think that the union is being stubborn and is unwilling to respond to the public’s desire for some form of limited random drug testing.  That’s why it’s become such a damn issue for everybody.”

“Valid or invalid isn’t the point anymore,” said Abernathy. “They’ve got a public relations problem they’re refusing to deal with.”

A REASON TO VOTE
“If people are voting ‘no’ because they want the commissioners out, there are better ways to do that,” said Quinn.  “Don’t vote ‘no’ on a tax levy simply because you have a political problem with a commissioner.”

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