South Pierce Fire and Medic has browned-out stations due to a decrease in tax funding.
South Pierce Fire and Medic has browned-out stations due to a decrease in tax funding.

Saving lives does not come cheaply. It takes $500,000 for a new fire engine and $35,000 for a heart monitor.

Nor does it happen without a dedicated and highly trained staff of volunteers and professionals, on call 24-hours a day, ready to respond at a moment’s notice when needed.

But due to a provision in state law that limits the revenue available to fire departments to 1 percent of the increase in assessed property values in any given year, South Pierce Fire and Rescue, which covers which covers Eatonville, McKenna, Roy, and all points in between, has seen its recent budget slashed by six percent while call volume has increased by 30 percent

Consequently, new personnel cannot be hired. Aging and outdated equipment cannot be upgraded or properly maintained. All of which leads to longer response times for emergency calls and greater risk to the firefighters and emergency medical technicians answering those calls.

“We are spread very, very thin,” Fire Chief Lloyd Galey said.

In order to remedy this situation, the district fire commissioners have put forth Propositions 1 and 2 on the upcoming ballot. Known collectively as a “levy lid lift,” they would enable the district to collect its full revenue of $200 per $100,000 of assessed property value – an amount previously approved by voters, but currently reduced to just $187 per $100,000 taxable home value due to the one percent limitation.

While $13  may not sound like a lot, it actually equates to a budget reduction of around $700,000. For a district comprised of less than 23,000 people, that’s a significant shortfall.

“Last year, because we didn’t pass the Lid Lift, it meant that we had to cut our budget radically,” Galey said. “And in doing that, to save employees, we had to do what, in the fire service, is called ‘browning out.’  And that means that on a day when the staffing is short, instead of having a fire fighter come back in and work extra … we shut the station down, and we just don’t operate out of that station for the day.”

The South Pierce  Fire and Rescue district contains eight fire stations scattered over an area of 140 square miles. Of those eight stations, only three are staffed at any given time. So even on a good day, response times are on the order of 10 to 15 minutes.

But when multiple calls come in at the same time from the same area, there aren’t enough staff members to respond from the nearest fire station, and therefore a crew has to be called in from one of the other two stations in the district. This can increase the response time to upwards of 35 minutes.

 “[For] somebody with a really serious heart condition or some sort of medical condition, or somebody’s house on fire, minutes are, seconds are critical,” Galey said.

Put simply, less funding means delayed response times, and delayed response times equals lives at risk.

A lack of sufficient funding limits the kinds of equipment that can be purchased and maintained, which not only endangers those using that equipment, but also lessens their effectiveness in putting out fires and tending to medical emergencies.

This is precisely the current situation for South Pierce.

“Everything has been neglected,” Galey said. “Rescue equipment, tools, vehicles. We have medic units that are …. pushing 250,000 miles. Most departments change them out at just over 100,000 miles. Bthe grace of God, we continue to operate.”

The Board of Fire Commissioners hopes to improve things for both area residents and the emergency crews that serve them by voter approval of Propositions 1 and 2.

 “We’re not wanting new money,” Galey said. “We just want to go back to what’s already (there). The voters have already approved this before. I hope we’re going to be successful because we really need the money just to keep things (going).”

And in his opinion, the reason a similar levy lid lift failed last year was simply due to a lack of voter turnout.  In 2017, just over 3,000 out of 12,000 registered voters in the district submitted ballots.

This year’s election takes place on Tuesday, Nov. 6. The Pierce County Elections Office mailed ballots out last week. Completed ballots can be mailed in, dropped off free of charge at any drop box, or can be submitted in person on Election Day at the nearest voting center.