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Guest opinion: Spokane Fire Department in urgent need of upgrade

The primary function and responsibility of municipal government is public safety. Keeping citizens safe and rescuing them from peril is the most important and highly valued service that our local governments provide. When polled, the citizens confirm this by ranking public safety as the most important function they expect from the city of Spokane.

Over the last decade we have witnessed a steady erosion of the tools, personnel and services needed to provide optimum levels of service and protection to our residents.

Public safety is always one of the biggest expenses in any city budget, and Spokane is no exception. It is always tempting for politicians to cut back these funds in times of economic downturn or divert them to fund other projects, and that is what has happened here in Spokane. After decades of bad decisions by our elected leaders we are all becoming increasingly less safe.

The Spokane Fire Department has been, and continues to be, one of the most underfunded municipal departments in the region. The Spokane Fire Department is broken. It is understaffed, has aging, substandard equipment and a minuscule training budget. The citizens of Spokane need and deserve much better. The state of the Spokane Fire Department has become serious, and action must be taken now.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1976, the SFD had 87 firefighters per shift. We had managed to reach a Class 2 Insurance Services Office rating, one of the best in the country. This is the standard insurance companies use to determine insurance rates. By the time current Chief Bobby Williams took over in 1988, we had 72 per shift. Due to budget cut after budget cut, today we are down to 59 firefighters per shift. Our insurance rating was downgraded to a Class 3 in 2000 and may well drop again if the ratings bureau were to look at us today. In that same time period, our run volume has increased from 5,746 emergency responses in 1974 to 15,449 emergency responses in 1988. In 2012, the SFD ran 32,512 emergency service calls.

This city, year after year, despite the pleas and pressure of its citizens, has consistently turned to the fire department budget to fix its broader budget problems. The city currently spends less money per capita on its fire department than nearly every other city in the region. The city’s firefighters have always strived to find more cost-efficient ways, including the new automatic response units program. Now, we are at the point where the level of fire protection in the city of Spokane has become a public safety problem.

It’s not that current city officials don’t recognize the problem, but the ideas being implemented as solutions are simply bandages that do nothing to address the core issue. One section of town, Eagle Ridge, has such poor fire protection that some residents were unable to even get insurance on their houses. The city’s “fix,” an automatic aid agreement (i.e. an agreement for help from a neighboring fire department) with District 3, is substandard at best. The wording of the agreement even states that it does nothing to improve fire service to Eagle Ridge, was implemented only in order to help residents get fire insurance on their houses and is temporary.

The true and long-term solution is a combination of increased staffing and a blending of regional services in order to capture efficiencies. The staffing issue can be addressed in the short term with a levy lid lift that would need to be put before the voters. It is only in this way that staffing for your fire department can be brought up to a safe and effective level. But even this is only a short-term fix.

In the long term, the fire department needs to separate itself from city government and become a regional fire authority, or RFA.

RFAs are a very cost-effective solution and are becoming increasingly common around the country. Created by a vote of the people, an RFA puts a fire department’s funding directly in the hands of the citizens who can vote to elect fire commissioners to run their fire department. Any taxes collected for the RFA can go only toward fire protection.

Spokane firefighters have been asked to do more and more with less and less for much too long. Both firefighters and the citizens they protect are increasingly at risk. We must move forward to fix our fire department now!

Don Waller is the president of Local 29 of the International Association of Firefighters, which represents city of Spokane firefighters.


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