New chief, new name and more at South King Fire

Captain Dave Van Valkenburg has been named as the interim fire chief.

South King Fire has some changes underway, including a search for a new fire chief. The recruitment agency has been chosen and the department has begun a nationwide search. Captain Dave Van Valkenburg has been named as the interim fire chief starting on Sept. 1.

South King Fire and Rescue’s board of commissioners officially voted to shorten their name by dropping the “and Rescue.” They are now waiting for approval from King County to finalize the change.

Notes from the March 28 commissioners meeting stated that the reason for the change is because it is the “name that has been used for many years” and the “Board desires to avoid any confusion in the electorate, and because it would cost a substantial amount to [add ‘and Rescue’] on all apparatus and stations, without any benefit to the public.”

Current department needs

South King Fire recently received voter approval for continued funding via Proposition 1. This levy will help provide money to “maintain and adequately fund” South King Fire operations, with a property levy rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value. It will start collecting in 2024, and allow for revenue increases of 6% in each of the next five years.

In the coming year, Chaney said that another large part of the department’s budget is also due to expire and will be in the hands of voters in 2024 to approve next year. The Maintenance and Operations Levy pays for around $3.75 million per year and is allocated for equipment and operational costs that do not include personnel.

Overall, Chaney said that South King Fire is looking to hire new staff and purchase a few more fire engines in the next year.

Open positions include seven to eight firefighters and a Chief of Emergency Medical Services (EMS). Some of the open firefighter positions will be filled by seven new recruits who started on Aug. 28 at the local fire academy. They are also looking for lateral firefighters from other regions who have completed their probationary year after attending the fire academy.

The Chief of EMS is a new position, part of whose responsibilities will be to oversee EMS training. This responsibility was previously added to an existing captain’s role. Chaney said that making this its own position is “exciting” and that this is an important change to make sure that training is consistent. “All firefighters are EMTs,” Chaney said. “Not everybody knows that.”

Fire prevention division

Until recently, the fire prevention division was made up of all firefighters who were fire inspectors as well, Captain Dave Chaney said. The department has now changed this structure by adding three civilian fire and life safety inspectors and some other adjustments.

Chaney said the change came from conversations where leaders at South King Fire looked at dwindling interest from current firefighters in becoming fire inspectors and asked: “How can we make this more efficient and sustainable for the community?”

The reason for this dwindling interest was the combination of challenging material to learn and a historically short length of time that firefighters stayed in that division. Chaney said it typically takes three years or so to complete the education and background learning to “get your feet underneath you” as a fire inspector, but that firefighters tend to only stay in the division for 5-7 years after that.

Adding in openings in the department for civilians whose “whole career plan literally is building codes and building inspection,” meant that they could partner with those who “already came in with years of experience and education,” Chaney said.

Having both the technically focused civilian positions and firefighters working together is an ideal combination, Chaney said.

“There’s book theories and then there’s like real world experience. And sometimes they’re not always one hundred percent in alignment,” Chaney said. “So it’s really nice because the civilian side can then collaborate with the fire service side and really help build that cohesion as these buildings are being built.”

The restructure also came with some promotions. New Fire Plans Examiner Scott Gerard has stepped into the role, and Chief Kevin Crossen now oversees the department as Division Chief. The fire marshal role is now filled by Sean Nichols and will be joined by new Assistant Fire Marshal Tanya Holland, who was promoted from a firefighter to her current role.

Deputy Fire Marshals John Strub and Roy Smith will partner with civilian Fire and Life Safety Inspectors Kortny Fleig, Lauri Bass and Erik Enghusen.

Zone 3 Training Consortium

Consistent training and response has been a focus of South King Fire for years, including a big shift in training and deployment strategies about six years ago. South King Fire is part of Zone 3, which is a training consortium that includes several nearby fire departments. To get emergency services out to community members as fast as possible, they are deployed by GPS, which means that firefighters from different departments often work together.

Today, all the departments in Zone 3 are trained the same.

“It doesn’t matter what the patch or the rig says, right? They’re trained to the exact same standard,” Chaney told The Mirror. “That wasn’t always the case. And that presented some challenges.”

Standardizing these processes was no small task. Chaney said it required the chief of the consortium to get 12 different fire chiefs to agree on every detail of their operations and decide on best practices.

All departments now use a communication system called Blue Card that is adapted from a fire department in Arizona. This tool helps them assess, communicate and respond to emergencies and easily collaborate with firefighters from other departments.