North Whidbey fire chief: Levy needed to replace essential equipment

The fire district is asking voters for a 15-cent levy lid lift for equipment upgrades in November.

North Whidbey Fire and Rescue officials hope that voters will agree to raise property taxes modestly in order to replace aging equipment.

The objective, they say, is to protect firefighters and keep homeowners’ fire insurance premiums from going up.

The fire district is asking voters for a 15-cent levy lid lift. If passed, the owner of a $370,000 home (the average home value in the district) would pay an extra $55.50 a year in property taxes. North Whidbey Fire and Rescue currently has the lowest levy rate on the island at 62 cents per $1,000 assessed property value.

“It’s not a huge levy, but it’s one we think we can live with, and spread our purchasing out over time to replace the necessary equipment to ensure our insurance rating and keep our firefighters safe,” said Marvin Koorn, chairman of the board of fire commissioners.

The agency responds to calls in unincorporated areas of Island County, from Libbey Road in Coupeville to the north end of the island. Call volumes have increased 45 percent in the last decade.

The extra money would be used to replace out-of-date and aging equipment, including two engines, radios and self-contained breathing apparatuses.

“The equipment is well taken care of, but it’s an aging thing,” said John Clark, who became fire chief in March. “It’s a lot of equipment to maintain,”

The department has spent about $75,000 on apparatus repairs since January of this year, Clark said, with the majority of the expenses for two engines. Both engines are 2003 models.

One engine was still leaking water on the station room floor despite having gone in recently for repairs for other issues.

New engines cost about $500,000 each.

The department’s radios are 20-25 years old and are unreliable, according to the fire chief. Agencies typically replace radios after 10-15 years of use, he added.

The radios have become so unreliable that firefighters have to wait at times for important information or otherwise work around the problem.

Lt. Michael Malleto recalled an incident in which, instead of going into a burning building, he had to run back to check with the chief to see if there was enough crew on the scene because his radio wasn’t working.

“They’re in a burning building with a pack on — that radio is their lifeline,” Clark said.

“Being able to hear each other on a radio is very huge,” echoed firefighter Becky Azure.

The radios can’t be repaired since manufacturers aren’t making replacement parts anymore, Clark explained. The same issue persists with the firefighters’ self-contained breathing apparatuses.

Levies have not gone over well with voters in the North End in the past. Voters rejected a levy increase in 2017 and twice in 2008.

This time around, Clark said he thinks the department has a better chance.

He also said he hopes that the smaller dollar amount and the department’s better communication with the public will sway voters.

“In general, taxpayers don’t like giving public entities a blank check,” Clark said. “The need was the same but it wasn’t communicated well.”

Last year, several members of the district sent a letter to the Whidbey News-Times about their lack of confidence in the board and encouraged the public to become more involved.

“We’ve known for some time that we need to be more pro-active in reaching out to the families and businesses we serve,” Clark said in an August press release about the agency’s efforts to improve communication with taxpayers.

He formed a citizens’ advisory committee to try to get the public more involved.

The group will help the fire district create a strategic plan by the end of 2021.

“I’m hoping, because of the nature of the fire incidents that we’re having across the state and the west coast of the country, that this will have a better chance of passing than ever before,” said Steve Schwalbe, a member of the citizen’s advisory committee for the agency.

If the levy lid lift does not pass, the agency will need to take a hard look at its operations, Koorn suggested.

That may include eliminating stations depending on the age of key equipment, or homeowners’ insurance rate could go up if the agency loses points on its insurance rating, he explained.

“The public decides what we can provide,” Clark said, adding that firefighters will still respond to calls if the levy passes or not.

“There’s no option for us not to do the work.”

North Whidbey fire chief: Levy needed to replace essential equipment