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Fire district candidates support volunteers

Event though it has more stations, equipment, and personnel than the city of Everett and serves about one-tenth the population, South Whidbey Fire Protection District 3 still has growth issues, issues that are at the heart of next month’s general election.

As the population on South Whidbey has increased in recent years, the district has undertaken ambitious station-building projects, has purchased property for new facilities, and has replaced most of its firefighting and medical aid vehicles. On Nov. 6, South Whidbey voters will choose one of two men to hold the district’s purse strings as part of the district’s three-member board of commissioners.

Freeland resident Dennis Benning, 57, and Langley resident Dennis Webster, 48, will vie for the commissioner seat being vacated by Bill Benjamin. Both men have prior experience volunteering for the district: Benning served as battalion chief at the Freeland fire station for a number of years, while Webster is an eight-year district veteran and a former Whidbey General Hospital emergency medical technician. Benning currently works with the Island County Roads Department, while Webster is a meat cutter at Payless grocery store.

At issue for whoever is elected will be the district’s continuing station construction plan — which includes a new station in Freeland, a district central facility near Bayview, and a remodeling project at the Clinton fire station — as well as an ongoing discussion over whether to hire full-time, paid firefighters.

Both say they are interested in having the district grow at a pace corresponding to population increases on South Whidbey.

“The district has done a good job of growing to serve the Southend,” Benning said in an interview this week.

A 31-year resident of Whidbey Island along with his wife Elaine, Benning said that as a commissioner he would support that growth, but with a more critical eye on expenditures. This year, the district spent about $2.4 million on capital projects such as equipment purchases and construction. How he and the other commissioners decide to allocate future budgets should be something in which local taxpayers should be able to participate.

“Very few people have any idea of what the fire commissioners do or how the district runs,” Benning said.

Webster, who has lived on the island with his wife, Debra, and his three children since 1989, has additional concerns. He said he is impressed with how well the district equips and trains its 100-plus volunteers. The people who do the district’s work should never be taken for granted.

“We need to make sure we take care of our most valuable asset,” he said Thursday.

One of the more contentious items on a new commissioner’s plate will be the district’s progress toward hiring full-time, paid firefighters. With plans on the drawing board to put overnight sleeping rooms in or next door to both the Freeland and Clinton fire stations, FD3’s future as a paid department is already partially charted. However, many members of the volunteer corps are opposed to the move.

Both candidates support keeping the district in volunteer hands. They agreed South Whidbey men and women should have the chance to serve as firefighters, rescue workers, and emergency medical technicians as long as the Southend demographics allow. But they also acknowledge there may come a time when FD3 needs to hire full-time firefighters to respond to a call volume that is growing every year.

“As long as I am a commissioner, I will do everything I can to see that this department is a volunteer department for as long as it can be,” Benning said.

Webster said if paid firefighters became necessary, they would have to fit in with members of the volunteer corps.

“We can’t get rid of the volunteers,” he said. “I think we’d be cutting our throats if we did.”

The man voters select for the commissioner’s job will serve with current commissioners Mike Helland and Bob Elliot.

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