OLYMPIA – If you missed Rosalia’s first big motorcycle festival last August, be sure to check it out next summer.
After all, you helped pay for it.
The two-day event, intended as an economic boost for tiny Rosalia, cost state taxpayers nearly a quarter of a million dollars.
Most of that went to fire departments and emergency workers, many of them from Puget Sound, who earned as much as $90 an hour to be on hand in case of problems. All told, more than 125 firefighters and medics – plus 57 emergency vehicles – were assigned to the bike rally.
Ultimately, the sum total of problems they responded to, according to an Aug. 22 e-mail from the deputy state fire marshal to a state budget worker, was “one injury motorcycle accident, a dehydration case, and a person passed out in town (drunk).”
By all accounts, the rally was a success, drawing roughly 10,000 motorcyclists to Rosalia, population 627. About 20 custom-bike builders also showed up, including several from the Discovery Channel’s popular bike-building shows. The network even sent a video crew, Mayor Ken Jacobs said.
Still, the rally’s cost to taxpayers – at least $355 for every man, woman and child in the city – has raised some eyebrows among lawmakers and budget officials in Olympia.
On Aug 20, state Rep. Maralyn Chase, D-Edmonds, wrote state emergency officials an e-mail questioning the expenditure. “Nothing against bikers, but who is subsidizing the public expenses for the Discovery Channel’s program?” Chase wrote.
The Washington State Patrol, as it turns out.
The Patrol had hoped to bill the costs to a state wildfire fund, but the state budget office rejected that idea. State Patrol Chief John Batiste, whose order dispatched the emergency crews to the Palouse, said his agency will cover the $225,000 cost. And that figure doesn’t include the cost of extra troopers he sent.
“The ultimate decision was that I would take it out of my budget,” Batiste said.
“The Next Hundred Years of Motorcycles” rally was the brainchild of Josh Bryan, owner of a small Spokane Valley bike shop called Northwest Custom Motorworks. He lives in Rosalia.
The idea was to draw in bikers and bike-builders on the weekend following the annual Bike Week mega-rally at Sturgis, S.D. Bryan pitched the idea to local officials, with attendance estimates ranging from 5,000 to 20,000 motorcyclists.
“It brings in much-needed revenues to a very depressed region,” Bryan said in an interview last week. “This is an area that’s desperately struggling to keep the doors open on their businesses.”
The prospect of thousands of bikers descending on tiny Rosalia, however, had some local officials nervous.
“The week before, everyone was shaking in their boots, not knowing what to expect,” said Rosalia Fire Chief Bill Tensfeld.
By early August, according to e-mail records, Spokane County Fire District 3 Chief Bruce Holloway and State Patrol Lt. Steve Turcott were feeling out state fire officials about paying for the crews by declaring a “fire mobilization.” A couple of weeks later, that’s what Tensfeld requested.
Fire mobilizations – an offspring of 1991’s “Fire Storm” in Spokane County – are essentially cries for help. They summon crews, fire trucks and state cash when local firefighters are overwhelmed by an emergency, usually a large, fast-moving wildfire. The crews are paid out of a special state firefighting fund.
“… Fire is running in timber parallel to the road and comes down the canyon towards clusters of homes,” reads a typical request, made by Yakima County crews during the 2004 fire season.
Tensfeld’s request said that the rally was “imminently threatening” the town. Local resources and mutual aid were exhausted, he said. The rally, he wrote, jeopardized the ability of local fire and ambulance crews to protect lives and property.
The Patrol at first seemed reluctant to authorize a fire mobilization, Tensfeld said.
“It didn’t look like they wanted to do it,” he said. “I got (state) Sen. (Mark) Schoesler involved in the ordeal, and they approved it.”
Absolutely true, said Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
“What’s a small town supposed to do?” he said. “They erred on the side of caution.”
On Aug. 18 – a day before bikes began rolling into Rosalia – State Patrol Chief Batiste, who also oversees the state fire marshal’s office, approved the request. From across the state, fire engines, ambulances, rescue rigs, communication vehicles and command cars headed toward Rosalia. At least one came via ferry boat across Puget Sound.
Dozens of firefighters came from Tacoma and Enumclaw, Olympia and Centralia, Puyallup and Port Orchard. Dozens more came from Eastern Washington, including Chelan, Ephrata, Moses Lake, Toppenish, Spokane and Airway Heights.
Mobilizing that force wasn’t cheap. Fire departments billed state taxpayers $45 to $123 per hour for fire engines. For three days of travel and standing at the ready, Tukwila and Thurston County charged more than $6,000 each – $140 an hour – for their rescue and extraction rigs.
Nor were the crews cheap. While some firefighters from Chelan County, Grandview, Spokane County and Yakima were paid $11.50 to $12.70 an hour with little overtime, payroll records show that many other firefighters were working mostly – or entirely – on overtime, at $40 to $60 an hour.
During the three-day event, a couple of Spokane-area firefighters, Stanton Cooke and Robert Hanna, billed for more than $2,000 apiece. Each filed more than 30 hours of overtime at more than $60 an hour, according to pay records. Highest paid of all was Pierce County Fire District 6 Assistant Chief Matthew Holm, who billed more than $4,000 for 46 hours, all of it overtime, at $90.60 an hour.
Feeding them cost another 10 grand: $4,500 in Tidyman’s sack lunches, and $6,191 paid to Longhorn Barbecue.
The emergency crews set up four task forces working ‘round the clock. They set up a base camp, an incident command post and two staging areas. They scouted out four landing zones for helicopters, checked their radios and distributed map books. Then they waited.
They also debated whether to announce the mobilization.
“Sometimes it’s better not to put out a media release like in this situation (sic),” Trooper Greg Pressel wrote in an e-mail to Batiste and others. “… It could be a very positive thing or raise a lot of questions.”
It’s clear from the crews’ activity logs and after-action reports that for most, it was a profoundly uneventful weekend.
“Stuck in traffic … briefing … map review …”
“Recon in Rosalia … Town not too active …”
“Dinner meeting with team to realign night shift plan.”
“Team discussions … Area familiarization …”
“Left briefing area en route to staging area …”
“Met with plans …”
“Distribute materials …”
“Gather weather information …”
“Documentation catch-up …”
“Check on smoke … Branch reported it to be dust …”
“Manager or employee of staging facility stopped in. They looked at the fire truck with his two boys. I gave them some mood pencils.”
Rosalia Mayor Ken Jacobs was surprised when told recently that the State Patrol must pick up the tab for the dozens of emergency workers.
“My understanding on that whole process was that it was basically some grant money available through Homeland Security, and they used that as a training session,” the mayor said. “It wasn’t anything that we really thought we needed.”
Bryan, the organizer, said he was glad the crews were there but that private security hired for the event could have managed.
“We always, of course, have contingency plans in any event,” he said. “Our preparedness is strong, and our ability is resolute.”
Sen. Schoesler, Fire Chief Tensfeld and others involved with the event say it’s unfair to judge the staffing through the lens of what’s now known: that little happened. Those fire and ambulance crews, they say, could have been badly needed.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” said Tensfeld. “It was the middle of harvest, the middle of fire season.”
It was also the same weekend that thousands of Washington State University students headed back to school on many of those same roads, Schoesler said.
“Rosalia’s got great law enforcement and EMS (medical) capability – for 1,000 people,” he said. “There was a very real potential to overwhelm paramedics and law enforcement if anything went wrong.”
Tensfeld compares the situation to Hurricane Katrina.
“Everybody got lambasted because they didn’t have enough resources set up in time,” he said. “We did, and didn’t need them. You’re darned if you do, and darned if you don’t.”
Patrol Chief Batiste said he feels he made the right decision. It was a last-minute request, he said, with no previous history. He was concerned about thousands of bikers, drinking alcohol, in a dry part of the state.
“Ultimately, I was looking at public safety as the first and foremost concern,” he said. “If any one of them had dropped a lit cigarette, it could have started a major fire situation.”
But next time, Batiste said, he wants a lot more facts a lot sooner. He wouldn’t say if he’d approve such a request again.
He said he’ll be able to find the $225,000 in his budget without hurting staffing or other programs.
“It has zero negative impact on the agency’s budget,” he said.
As for the event, look for it to expand to three days in 2006. Bryan said he’s still getting e-mails raving about this summer’s rally.
“The word of mouth alone is worth gold,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a fairly powerful event this next year.”
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