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Fire district adds to vehicle fleet
"Special Services Chief Darin Reid, left, EMT Captain Connie Shields-Stolcis, center, and FD 3 Assistant Chief Paul Bush spend some quality time with department's newest vehicle acquisitions. The vehicles are expected to reduce response times and to make emergency scenes safer for both victims and FD3 volunteers.Matt Johnson / staff photoTwo new SUVs with a total price tag of $60,000 will get medical professionals to South Whidbey car accidents, fires and medical emergencies faster than ever before and should allow Fire Protection District 3 to remain a volunteer fire and rescue department for a few more years.The SUVs and a recently-purchased $130,000 aid vehicle are the newest additions to a fleet of 26 taxpayer-owned emergency vehicles that FD 3 officers say keep South Whidbey people safe and save the district money. Fire Chief Don Smith said his department now houses more equipment in its seven fire stations than the City of Everett owns to protect a population many times larger than that on South Whidbey. Though it might seem that FD 3 is overloaded with equipment, Smith said his department needs more vehicles and more stations to protect property and lives in the 65 square miles of territory the district serves. Unlike large cities with professional fire departments, FD 3 does not have paid staff on duty 24 hours a day. The city of Oak Harbor, which handles about the same number of emergency calls as FD 3 annually but within only eight square miles, has the only paid department on Whidbey Island. Because of its small protection area and its 10 paid firefighters, the Oak Harbor Fire Department needs only one fire station and eight vehicles.On South Whidbey, where residents still have the lowest fire district levy in Island County, having more costs less. By spreading out its vehicles and its 98 volunteers, Smith said FD 3 can get emergency personnel to an accident scene, medical emergency, or fire as fast as a paid department without paying upwards of $60,000 a year for every paid, full-time firefighter.The equipment is cheap, Smith said, noting that $60,000 for two vehicles is a one-time expense while $60,000 for a firefighter's salary and benefits must be paid every year.The district's new SUVs, which are equipped with almost every piece of lifesaving equipment found on a Whidbey General Hospital ambulance, are part of the district's plan to further speed volunteer response times. Known as MERVs (Medical Emergency Response Vehicles), the trucks and the volunteers who drive them are on duty 24 hours a day.Connie Shields-Stolcis, the district's EMT captain, said volunteers sign up to drive the vehicles on day-long shifts. They may use the trucks to do their regular errands and other trips, but must remain on South Whidbey and must respond to medical emergencies. EMTs who are not driving a MERV are not required to respond.Stolcis said the MERV program makes certain help is always just minutes away.We can guarantee a response, she said.Whidbey 36 on lineThe district's other new vehicle, which was commissioned as Whidbey 36 two weeks ago, is the ultimate multi-purpose vehicle. Equipped like an ambulance but with a larger interior, it will be used to treat patients at accident scenes and on medical emergency calls when EMTs need to get people out of the weather.Darin Reid, the district's chief of special services, said he has worked too many accident scenes at which a patient had to lie on a cold, wet roadway while waiting for an ambulance to arrive. If necessary, Whidbey 36 can be used to transport up to four patients at a time.Chief Smith said the vehicle will also serve as a firefighter recovery unit. Until now, firefighters who needed a rest and medical attention while battling a fire could get it only from the back of a district pickup truck or fire engine. The district's new vehicle has cooking equipment EMTs can use to heat up coffee or soup for exhausted firefighters; a built-in awning to shield firefighters from sun or rain; and medical equipment to treat firefighters suffering from exhaustion or other medical conditions.Smith credited the fire district's commissioners with keeping FD 3 well equipped. During the past 10 years, the district has replaced almost every vehicle it owns. The district is also in the process of modernizing or replacing its fire stations, and is setting aside money for future vehicle replacements. Eventually, Smith said, the district will begin hiring paid staff, but that move is years away. At present, only Smith and a few others are paid for their work. "