South Whidbey Fire/EMS may seek off-island help

Hoping to combat a declining volunteer force, South Whidbey Fire/EMS is considering opening its recruitment borders.

Instead of only looking for fresh blood on South Whidbey, the district could look beyond the South End, even going past Whidbey’s shores.

“The dilemma is we have a limited number of people here we can tap up to volunteer,” Chief Rusty Palmer said. “It’s getting more and more difficult to find the volunteers we need. This is an effort to reach out in a different way.”

The South Whidbey Fire/EMS Board of Commissioners fielded a proposed policy amendment at this month’s commissioners’ meeting that could alter the district’s volunteer pool. Under the current rules, volunteers could theoretically live beyond district boundaries, but the commissioners would need to vote on each case at their monthly meetings. The proposed amendment would put the decision-making power in Palmer’s hands, streamlining the process.

Palmer says the move would combat the “constant decline” of the volunteers available in the past 15 years. Between 2000 and 2010, the district lost 203 volunteers, although Palmer says some of those were inactive during their time as volunteers, naturally. Statistics on volunteer numbers since 2010 weren’t immediately available.

“The decline in volunteerism follows the pattern of every other fire department in the country,” Palmer said.

“We’re trying to pursue every possible angle to meet the rising call volume,” Commissioner Kenon Simmons said. “Some day, we’re probably going to have to go to full-time firefighters to some degree or level.”

Where Palmer and Hartin are largely looking for volunteers beyond their districts is off-island. Palmer is hoping to capitalize on people from the mainland looking for volunteer experience, similar to an internship. With off-island volunteers, the district would assign them to shifts on South Whidbey so they wouldn’t have to deal with the ferry while trying to respond to a call.

Palmer says he doesn’t anticipate getting a large amount of interest from Central or North Whidbey, as the separate fire departments typically refer applicants to the districts they live within. However, prospective volunteers can serve another district if they choose, or to volunteer for more than one.

Central Whidbey Fire and Rescue implemented a similar out-of-district policy last year, according to Chief Ed Hartin. Like South Whidbey Fire/EMS, Hartin’s team has been struggling with volunteer manpower for years.

They’re not alone.

“Volunteerism all over the country is at about an 8 percent deficit,” Palmer said. “We’ve been looking for ways to deal with that. Part of what we’ve done is hire part-time employees.”

Given South Whidbey is aging, proper staffing is crucial for the district. An aging population means more medical emergency calls, and fewer people who live within district boundaries who are physically fit for the job. Palmer says over a seven-year period, the district has seen double the amount of emergency calls, 78 percent of which are medical. Even though this year’s call amount has stagnated somewhat, it’s been exponentially increasing in recent years. Emergency calls exceeded 2,600 for the first time in 2016.

The proposed policy amendment was approved under the first reading, and the policy could be formally amended upon second reading at the next commissioners’ meeting on Oct. 12. Although more will be needed to combat the problem in the future, the move could be a step in the right direction.

“Although we’ll need a long-term solution, this is an effort to maintain the amount of volunteers we need,” Palmer said.

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