South Whidbey Fire stays out of inspections

Mike Helland, chairman of the South Whidbey Fire/EMS Board of Commissioners, speaks during a district meeting about fire inspections for Langley. - Ben Watanabe / The Record
Mike Helland, chairman of the South Whidbey Fire/EMS Board of Commissioners, speaks during a district meeting about fire inspections for Langley.
— image credit: Ben Watanabe / The Record

Inspecting buildings for fire safety is a typical function for fire departments but it’s not free.

It costs money, lots of it on South Whidbey.

Commissioners of South Whidbey Fire/EMS agreed that their fire district was incapable of handling fire safety inspections for an estimated 400 businesses in unincorporated areas of South Whidbey Island.

At a meeting Tuesday night, the three commissioners unanimously approved to abstain from inspecting commercial properties within district boundaries.

Island County has worked on an interlocal agreement with fire protection districts on North Whidbey, Central Whidbey, South Whidbey and Camano Island for years. The Oak Harbor Fire Department is not part of the agreement because it already performs fire safety inspections for incorporated areas of Oak Harbor.

South Whidbey Fire/EMS Chief Rusty Palmer, however, said his district does not have the funding to provide the inspections.

Mike Helland, chairman of the fire district board of commissioners, supported the fire chief’s claim.

“Most of the other districts have paid personnel,” said Helland.

South Whidbey Fire/EMS has five fire officers on salary: the chief, an assistant chief, two deputy chiefs and a division chief.

“The tax that the other districts pay is much more substantial than we pay here on South Whidbey.”

Palmer estimated 400 businesses would require inspections from South Whidbey Fire/EMS. That work would practically require a new position in the fire district’s payroll, which fire district officials said the budget could not support.

“We don’t have the resources and don’t have a plan for the resources,” Helland said.

Instead, South Whidbey Fire/EMS commissioners signed a letter stating their intention to not participate at this time, which would allow the other fire protection districts to move forward.

“According to the language of the document, we can work our way into it,” Palmer said.

Helland said he heard of interest in Langley for South Whidbey Fire/EMS to perform its building inspections. With about 125 businesses within city limits, Helland speculated Langley may be a good “pilot” area when the fire district begins the service.

That’s an idea Mayor Fred McCarthy was amenable to, though he had not proposed it to the Langley City Council. The city has been without a building official, the person in charge of reviewing and permitting building plans, after longtime inspector Bob Snyder resigned.

Langley has an ordinance that requires annual fire safety inspections for businesses. It hasn’t been enforced in years, the mayor said, partly because of fears that the fee-based inspection would unnecessarily burden businesses.

“The inspections are somewhat problematic in that it would be an additional cost to the business owners,” McCarthy said.

At the city council’s Aug. 5 meeting, members said they were interested in having South Whidbey Fire/EMS perform building safety inspections, a sentiment the mayor shared.

“We’re waiting to see and hoping the fire department would have more of a central role in doing those,” McCarthy said.

South Whidbey Fire/EMS, though it was staying out of fire safety inspections for the near future, would like to conduct them at some point.


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