Fire district grappling with manpower and voter issues

By Pat Jenkins
The Dispatch
More volunteer firefighters in Eatonville and more agreeable voters are on South Pierce Fire and Rescue’s wish list.
The fire district is dealing with manpower issues that are noticeable in Eatonville, where South Pierce runs the town’s fire protection and emergency medical services (EMS). District officials want to recruit volunteers to help beef up the ranks of firefighters there.
Meanwhile, in the areas outside the town, the district is facing life at least temporarily without the amount of support from voters it needs for its levies. Voters rejected them in November. The district commissioners are tentatively planning to put the measures back on the ballot next year and are hoping for a reversal of fortune at the ballot box.
In last month’s general election, Proposition 1 would have reauthorized a previously approved fire protection levy lid of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed valuation on property in the district. Proposition 2 called for renewing the emergency services funding at a rate of 50 cents per $1,000 of valuation. Both levies would have passed with any yes-vote over 50 percent, but they fell short.
Leading up to the election, supporters of the levies emphasized the proposals weren’t for new taxes.
Commissioner Olivia Werner said last week the district must try again to win voters’ approval of the measures. A decision on when is waiting until after two new commissioners who were elected in November take office and can be formally involved in the process. But the likely scenario “at this point” is being on the primary election ballot next August, said Werner, who is the commissioners’ chairwoman.
Supporters of the levies are planning a more aggressive campaign next time. They think some voters may have misinterpreted the district’s request.
Werner said she’s "not sure why" voters rejected the levies this year, but they may have been expressing a general distaste for taxes.
She noted the district was asking for the same level of taxpayer support that voters have approved in other years. She said levy supporters might need to be more proactive in sharing information with voters, such as direct phone calls.
“We made information available this year, but we need to do more of that to be sure voters understand what we're asking for," Werner said.
Fire chief Lloyd Galey said a levy campaign through traditional efforts such as door-to-door voter contact is tricky in the South Pierce district because much of it is rural and spread out. Regardless, “we need to do a better job of educating the public,” he said.
The district ranges from the Clear Lake area to Roy, serving a combined population of about 22,000. The Town of Eatonville isn’t part of the district but contracts it. Voters in the town don’t have a say in the district’s levy elections.
The levies’ failure isn’t having a negative impact on the fire district’s level of service, but that’s “as of today,” Galey said. There could be problems if a major unexpected expense comes up, such as replacing a fire truck. But there are no plans for layoffs or reduction in overall staffing, the chief said.
“We will continue to juggle our available personnel to cover everything,” Galey said. That includes having no staff some days each month at the Eatonville station. Most of the time, the station will be open with one fulltime firefighter and one volunteer.
That kind of flexible staffing is necessary to manage personnel costs and because of extended time away from work for some firefighters for family or medical-related leave, according to Galey. He said the manpower issue will improve when two firefighters gone for those reasons return to work and a new hire joins the firefighter ranks.
Galey said an agreement with the firefighters union will enable the district to have five-man shifts that will reduce overtime costs.
On days when the Eatonville station isn’t staffed, the first response to incidents in the town will come from personnel at the district’s main station at 340th Street East and State Route 7. That’s about an eight to 10-minute drive.
Galey is hoping more volunteers will “step up” to be firefighters in Eatonville.
A volunteer firefighter was the first one on the scene of a fire that damaged a liquor store in Eatonville Dec. 3. Galey praised him for keeping the fire from being more destructive.
Galey and other officials have suggested a town hall-style meeting for a public discussion of the town’s fire protection and EMS, and that’s what is scheduled for Dec. 20 at 7 p.m. at Eatonville Community Center.
At a recent Town Council meeting, Councilman Bill Dunn lamented what he called misinformation about fire service being spread via social media and rumors, and he thanked Galey for his "transparency" in discussing fire protection issues.
Dunn said a long-term, sustainable solution is needed for the town's fire protection and EMS.


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