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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Airway Heights hiring part-time firefighters

By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

For the first time in nearly 60 years, the Airway Heights Fire Department is working to hire several part-time firefighters to supplement its 40 volunteer firefighters due to an ever increasing number of calls.

“We’re looking to get six,” said Fire Chief Mitch Metzger. “We have one right now.”

Last week was spent testing and interviewing a dozen applicants for the positions. The applicants are experienced, trained firefighters, Metzger said. Those given a conditional employment offer will then go through a background check process before hopefully starting work in mid-May, he said.

The part-time firefighters will each work two 12-hour shifts a week, filling the time slot between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays. The department currently has trouble filling those shifts, Metzger said. “All of our volunteers have other jobs or school,” he said. “We’ve had many days where only one person is signed up or no one is signed up.”

In those cases, the department’s four full-time chief officers are the ones who respond to calls for anything from sick people to car crashes to fires. “The chief officers are driving the fire truck or running hose or whatever,” he said. “We don’t mind running calls, but then we don’t get our other work done.”

And there are a lot more calls than there used to be. Currently, 26% of the time when a call comes in, the crew is already busy on another call. The department has already responded to more than 800 calls this year. “Twelve years ago, we had less than 800 in the whole year,” Metzger said. “A huge part of it is our population growth.”

The number of calls the department responds to has more than doubled in the last five years, Metzger said. The department is responsible for an area that is 7.5 square miles. There is only one fire station.

Two of the new part-time firefighters will staff the station from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day Monday through Friday, supplementing the volunteers. Each paid firefighter will be limited to two shifts a week. “It definitely should reduce our workload,” Metzger said.

The decision was made to recruit part-time instead of full-time firefighters because it’s what the department can afford, Metzger said. He said he’s trying to spend the taxpayers’ money wisely. “It’s about being cost effective,” he said. “Could I use more? Yes.”

Metzger knows that the handwriting is on the wall. As the population continues to grow, so will the number of calls. The department is already studying when it would be appropriate to ask voters to pass a levy to pay for additional staff, Metzger said.

“We’re going through a needs assessment with an outside company so it’s not just the fire chief saying ‘I need more,’ ” he said. “We’ll take that information and look at ways we can educate the community so they can understand what we’re asking for.”

Another point to consider is that the department’s only station needs to be upgraded. It was built in 1963 and the last upgrade, in 1994, was the addition of a new truck bay.

Metzger estimates that it will probably be 2023 before the department considers asking voters to contribute more money to the department so that it can continue to provide needed services to the public in Airway Heights.

“We’re trying to be very thoughtful in that process,” he said.