New South Whidbey fire chief outlines plans for district

In the new year, South Whidbey Fire/EMS has big plans to increase fire safety in the community.

In the new year, South Whidbey Fire/EMS has big plans to increase fire safety in the community.

Fire Chief Nicholas Walsh shared this news along with an overview of the fire department during a meeting of the Freeland Chamber of Commerce this week.

Walsh has been with the South End fire district for the past nine months. He replaced retiring Fire Chief Rusty Palmer in April 2022. Previously, Walsh served as Chief of Training and EMS at the Anacortes Fire Department.

During the meeting, Walsh said the district’s big focus in 2023 is fire prevention and community risk reduction, areas that the Survey and Ratings Bureau identified were deficient in the past. A deputy chief has been appointed to specialize in these topics.

The district has also begun changing out smoke detector batteries for people who may have trouble accessing them in high spaces. It’s not something that’s been done in the past, according to Walsh, but it’s been a successful program so far. In the future, he said, the district wants to do fire safety inspections of high-risk buildings.

In addition, Walsh shared that the district has actively been improving staffing levels. There are currently 15 full-time, paid firefighters, up from just 12 in 2022. Volunteer firefighters increased from 38 in September 2022 to 42 in December 2022.

Walsh explained that volunteers answer a pager or come into the station and do shifts with paid crew who respond to calls. The latter option, he said, is appealing to younger people who are interested in a career in the firefighting service.

“Anytime we have members in the fire station when the tones go out, that’s immediately saving 10 to 15 minutes in response,” he said.

South Whidbey Fire/EMS has a total of six stations within a district that covers about 66 square miles.

“That’s a pretty long stretch,” Walsh said. “One end of the district to the other can take up to a half an hour, plus. In case of an emergency, that’s a long response.”

Only the station in Bayview is staffed on a 24/7 basis. Volunteers can opt to check out aid cars and drive around, ready to respond to a call.

Walsh said the department is aiming to have four firefighters assigned to each shift, in order to follow the “two in/two out” rule laid out in state code. Two firefighters must go inside a structure to assess the danger, while two others stay outside to provide assistance.

Jan. 11, 2023 was a momentous day for South Whidbey Fire/EMS – with six firefighters on during the day and eight at night, two stations were staffed for the first time in the district’s known history.

In the coming year, the district hopes to increase staffing to three additional positions. Walsh said the department currently has 50% paid staff members who are women. Nationally, the number of paid female firefighters in the fire service is between 4 and 6%.

“That’s something that we’re proud of,” he said.

South Whidbey Fire/EMS responded to 2,657 calls for service in 2022, 75% of which were related to EMS. Just under 2% were for fires.

The department also rescues dogs and other animals from tight spots, as well as performs marine rescues. Watercraft rescue seems to be the most common type, with a total of 43 in 2022. One rescue boat is parked at the Bayview station and another is in the water, ready to go, at the South Whidbey Harbor in Langley. But getting to calls on the west side of the island can be difficult given the distance and the paucity of accessible boat launch ramps.

The district has also been working on improving its website and strengthening cyber security after a data breach occurred last year. The district has hired an outside IT vendor and now utilizes a cloud-based system.

“There’s a cost to that, but at the end of the day it’s a cost savings because it’s more secure and functions better,” Walsh said.

The fire chief shared some exciting new changes ahead for South Whidbey Fire/EMS, including the replacement of one fire engine and two aid cars. For the first time, the district will have its own ambulance to run in addition to the ones provided by WhidbeyHealth.

Walsh said the district is still looking for more volunteers, who can indicate their interest by visiting the website,