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For better or worse, South King Fire depends on voters

South King Fire and Rescue firefighters test the oldest ladder truck (1981) in the fleet at Station 62 on South 312th Street. - Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror
South King Fire and Rescue firefighters test the oldest ladder truck (1981) in the fleet at Station 62 on South 312th Street.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/Federal Way Mirror

South King Fire and Rescue faces a critical financial crossroads in 2012, in what the district calls a permanent reset to its overstretched business model.

Fire service and emergency response has evolved in South King County for decades. Over the years, South King Fire added more rescue and medical services to its firefighting duties, mirroring the dual role adopted by most fire districts in the West.

Burned by the economy and declining property values, South King Fire struggles to maintain services at pre-recession levels. Before cutting more employees, the fire district awaits the fate of another plea this year to taxpayers for help.

For the first time in its history, South King Fire is declining instead of growing. When the chopping block comes out, according to Chief Al Church, "everything's on the table."

East Coast vs. West Coast

The majority of South King Fire and Rescue's nearly 16,000 annual calls for service are for medical emergencies, and all firefighters are trained in EMS.

Unlike the East Coast, where firefighters and EMS crews work in separate departments, West Coast fire districts typically provide medical response.

It's a trend that picked up in the 1970s, said Gordie Olson, assistant chief for South King. Fire districts incorporated more EMS services in their role as first responders, and the transition seemed to make sense. Over the years, the fire district grew to include Hazmat and water rescue.

As the volume of calls spiked, so did the fire district's reliance on dispatch centers with nurses on hand to handle repeat callers. Sometimes rescue crews responded to a 911 call, arriving at the scene only to find somebody who wanted a flu shot, Olson relayed.

South King Fire consists of the former Federal Way and Des Moines fire departments, which merged in 2006. Three decades ago, the volunteer-driven department began transitioning to a staff of career firefighters.

Due to training standards and regulations, it was difficult to find volunteers who would commit longer than six months. Incorporating more volunteers into South King Fire, as opposed to professional firefighters, would also lead to less-efficient personnel.

"It was a losing proposition," Church said.

Bargain tax rate: How the fire district raises money

South King Fire covers more than 150,000 homes in the Federal Way and Des Moines area, and residents pay the lowest tax rate in the county.

The fire district collects $1.50 per $1,000 for both residential and commercial property values. The Kent fire district, for comparison, collects rates at $2 per $1,000 for residential and more than $3 per $1,000 from commercial properties. South King Fire depends on voters to generate revenue above that $1.50 cap, the maximum allowed by law.  Other fire departments collect more because their voters approved funding formulas to raise the cap.

Emergency service providers across the county split the public funding pie with other taxing entities. Allocating more money to the fire district, for example, competes with another entity's money. Whether it's a library or a hospital, no one will lose that money without a fight.

To supplement their lean budgets, fire districts commonly propose levies and service benefit charges at elections.

In the April special election, South King Fire's excess levy failed to receive a 60 percent supermajority — falling about 140 votes short. That same excess levy will go before voters for the second time this year on the Aug. 7 primary election ballot.

If approved, this levy will raise about $3.5 million in revenue per year for four years. The fire district says the money will put one aid car back in service. The money will also close the $2.5 million budget gap that is currently filled with cash reserves.

Voters rejected South King Fire's last proposed service benefit charge in 2010. The proposal would have restructured the tax collection formula based on the square footage of homes and businesses in the fire district's service area. Had the benefit charge passed, the fire district's tax collection capacity would have been raised an extra 50 cents, which is comparable to Kent and Auburn's fire departments.

Other funding options include bond proposals, but those would require the money to go toward capital projects, not operating expenses.

Another option on the table is to charge a fee for transport to hospitals in medical emergencies. SKFR is not in the ambulance business, and only provides medical response with its aid cars. King County Medic currently provides ambulance services for the area. Such a transport fee could bring a ballpark estimate of $300,000 to the fire district's coffers. However, the extra money would make a minimal impact on the district's operating budget.

One recent effort to save money involved shedding a 1.16-square mile piece of coverage territory. The Mirror reported in 2011 that South King Fire agreed to de-annex the piece of land in unincorporated King County to avoid losing an estimated $5.3 million in property tax revenue.

SKFR reported total operating expenses for 2011 at $22,522,445. Revenues were about $20 million, and nearly $20 million paid employee salaries and benefits. In 2010, SKFR's operating budget was $23,248,772 — reflecting the property tax values before they dipped again.

If the levy fails in August, the fire district will reduce personnel through attrition and layoffs. Between 20 and 25 firefighters could be laid off by the end of 2013, the district reports. South King Fire also expects to close one of its stations.

Response protocol, efficiency and innovation

The diesel-guzzling all-purpose fire engines are stocked with all the necessary firefighting and EMS equipment, ready for any call, anytime, anywhere.

Each big rig is the ultimate toolbox on wheels, adding versatility to the fire district's response. Monetary restrictions have led to reliance on these fire engines as the primary go-to vehicles. South King Fire budgets $150,000 annually to fuel the fleet of pumpers and ladder trucks, alongside aid cars, SUVs and pickup trucks.

These fire engines are deployed with the resources necessary to address the possibility of injury or death for either firefighters and civilians, and prevent property losses caused by fire.

Other dual-role fire districts in the nation have sought alternatives that save fuel and reduce response times to emergencies. Paramedics in Austin, Texas, respond to calls on motorcycles, often arriving up to three minutes faster than ambulances. The fleet's four motorcycles come equipped with life-saving medical technology and first-aid supplies, able to zip through clogged freeways to treat traffic accident victims. According to one report, the motorcycle paramedics can treat minor injuries at the scene — and can call off an ambulance to keep it available for a more serious emergency.

Austin police help train the paramedics, who must also complete motorcycle safety courses. The EMS motorcycle experiment has been successful in Miami, Fla., and already flourishes in congested cities across Europe and Asia.

Typical motorcycles average about 35 miles per gallon compared to fire trucks with single-digit fuel economy.

The Seattle Fire Department, which is much more urban than South King Fire's suburban coverage area, briefly flirted with EMS motorcycles in 2007, but the program did not materialize due to funding.

Would an idea like EMS motorcycles catch on at South King Fire and Rescue? Chief Al Church says the motorcycles would lead to faster response times and more efficient service. Keeping in mind that the fire district's ability to staff emergency response vehicles is driven by the budget, there's one more obstacle in the way: No employees to staff the motorcycles.

For now, South King Fire just wants to keep basic life-saving services afloat for the public during these uncertain economic times. The fire district plans to increase awareness for its August levy and continue educating the public on personal safety and fire prevention.

"We are going to find a way to make it work for Mr. and Mrs. Smith," Church said. "No matter what."

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