Staffing a big issue in fire district commission race

Two-term incumbent Mike Helland and former three-term commissioner Gary Gabelein will face each other in next week’s General Election for a seat on the Island County Fire District 3 board of commissioners.

They were the top two vote-getters in a contentious four-way primary for Position 3 on the board.

The election is turning out to be a referendum on several district issues, especially regarding volunteer recruitment, retention and morale, and the elimination this year of all six part-time paid firefighter positions.

Response times, the efficient use of equipment and the way money has been spent in the district also are issues.

The district is contending with growing pains from a rising retirement population, and it will have a new fire chief in February, when Chief Dan Stout retires.

The fire district covers about 66 square miles from the south end of the island north to Classic Road between Freeland and Greenbank. Its six stations serve about 16,000 full- and part-time residents.

All registered residents of the district can vote for each commissioner.

The volunteer-based district has six full-time employees, about 100 volunteers and a tax-supported budget of about $1.8 million.

Commissioners on the three-member board must be residents of the district. They serve staggered six-year terms, meeting once a month, and receive about $95 per meeting.

A position on the commission comes up for a vote every two years.

Gary Gabelein

Gabelein, 60, a South Whidbey native and former district commissioner for 18 years, continues to stress his leadership and financial management experience, and his long association with the district.

Retired from Washington State Ferries after 28 years as a boat captain, he and his wife, Janie, run a bed-and-breakfast in the Bayview area.

Gabelein has been involved with District 3 for 38 years as a firefighter, battalion chief, emergency medical technician, instructor and commissioner.

“I still think the district needs to reinstate the paid people, and needs to show more appreciation for the volunteers and do everything it can to keep them,” he said.

Gabelein stresses his community experience as a member of the Island County Tourism Committee, a board member for Langley Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Clinton Chamber of Commerce.

He said he will bring “new input” to the fire district board.

“Reinstatement of the two-person day crew is our crucial issue,” he said. “I feel the district is not providing adequate daytime fire protection and the manpower needed to support the available volunteers.”

Gabelein said he would work to improve the lines of communication between staff and volunteers, and give prompt attention to requests for maintenance of equipment and buildings.

“Small conflicts and concerns have not been fully addressed, thus creating rumor mills and morale problems,” he said.

Gabelein said response times have been the best possible for a volunteer system, but that reinstatement of the paid day crew would improve that situation, especially if the day crew were centrally stationed at Bayview.

He said the proposed new headquarters and training facility at Bayview “should be one of our priorities.”

“Being able to provide a qualified training facility within the district will be more cost-effective and time-efficient than sending them out of district and off island,” he said.

As for medical calls, which make up more than 80 percent of the district’s responses, Gabelein said he would emphasize use of smaller medical units rather than fire trucks, which use more fuel and are more costly to maintain.

“I want to work with other board members to provide the best fire protection and other services for the community in the most efficient and cost effective way possible,” Gabelein added.

Mike Helland

Helland, 53, is seeking his third consecutive six-year term on the board. He has been a South Whidbey resident for 34 years, and has been manager of the Clinton Water District for the past 18 years.

“My record is there to be examined,” Helland said.

Helland said he and the other commissioners, Kenon Simmons and Bob Elliot, have tried to be “lean and mean” in running the district, and that the volunteer system “is as efficient as any other we could have.”

He said the district’s current property tax assessment, 51 cents per $1,000 of valuation, is one of the lowest among fire districts in the state.

Helland has an extensive background in public health and safety. A graduate of Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood, he has several specialized licenses from Washington state.

“I’m running for the same reason that the volunteers are volunteering, to serve my community,” he said.

His other previous public experience includes membership on the Island County Groundwater Advisory Committee and the Clinton Sub-Area Planning Committee.

He said the most important issue facing the district is “to continue to meet the increased call volumes while providing the same quality service that we have in the past.”

He disagrees that volunteer morale is low, and that recruitment has fallen off. He said most of the district’s six stations are fully staffed with volunteers.

Helland said that the district is using a recently received grant to promote the volunteer program, and that 12 new volunteers are undergoing training.

“They have the best gear, responses are good, the rigs are new, the buildings are new,” Helland said of the volunteers. “I don’t know what more we can do to support them.”

He said the part-time paid firefighter program was begun as an experiment and, beyond being an increased expense in tight-budget times, also created some tension between paid and unpaid members of the department.

Helland said a new headquarters and training center at Bayview “is absolutely needed,” but that the commission has no plans to go to the voters in these tough economic times.

He said that a recent survey by the district indicates that response times have been more than adequate.

“But anything that gets measured gets improved,” he added. “We have been and will continue to measure response times.”

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