Walla Walla County Fire District 5 facing service challenges - March 16, 2023
Call volumes up 100 percent; staffing struggling to keep up
Burbank, Wash. – Walla Walla County Fire District 5 reports that call volumes have increased 100 percent in the last 10 years. The fire district responds to an average 700 calls per year – of which 65 percent are for emergency medical service (EMS). Additionally, overlapping calls – when two or more come in at the same time – are happening 10 percent of the time.
Revenue is not keeping up with this demand for and costs to provide service.
“We want to be transparent with our community,” Fire Chief Mike Wickstrom said. “Right now, we are struggling to keep up with higher call volumes. We need more firefighters to meet the emergency service needs of our community.”
Funding is required to meet emergency service needs of the community
The fire district funds fire suppression and 60 percent of its EMS program through a fire levy capped at $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value. The fire district’s EMS program is staffed with highly skilled paramedics who can perform advanced lifesaving care.
The fire levy also pays for capital projects like replacing equipment or renovating fire stations. The fire district also collects some revenue from new construction but that is not nearly enough to replace fire levy funding. In 2022, the fire district received just $60,000 from new construction.
Thirty years ago, voters approved a fire levy of $1.50. Since then, the rate has dropped to $1.14 while call volumes have increased 100 percent in the last 10 years. This is called “levy compression” and impacts the fire district’s ability to provide emergency services as call volumes increase.
Why did the levy rate drop?
Each year the fire district is allowed to collect a set amount of revenue. State law limits the fire district to that same amount plus one percent more per year. Even if property values double, the fire district can only collect one percent more. This means the levy rate falls as property values rise to limit the fire district to the same amount of revenue from the previous year plus that one percent increase (or any other voter-approved increase).
The fire district has been able to operate efficiently for 30 years without having to raise its levy rate. This is no longer an option. The fire district is considering asking voters to raise the fire levy to $1.38 sometime this year. It would cost an owner of a $350,000 home $84 per year or $7 per month.
Lid lift would improve service at a lower cost than borrowing money
If approved by voters, funding from the lid lift would pay for up to four additional firefighters, station renovations and equipment replacement. The fire district relies on volunteer personnel, but due to the time commitment, the fire district went from 30 volunteers to just seven who are active. This is an issue nationwide.
“We have tried to recruit more volunteers by increasing compensation without success,” Chief Wickstrom said. “It is tough to make such a commitment when many of our volunteers have full-time jobs, family, or school. Our call volumes have reached a point where we simply cannot attract and retain enough volunteers to respond.”
Lid lift funding would also pay to add sleeping quarters to provide faster response times in the Charbonneau and Wallula areas. Burbank’s main fire station would receive larger bays to house modern equipment, station exhaust removal systems and decontamination areas to meet Washington State Labor & Industries requirements to improve firefighter health and safety.
The fire district can fund these projects through the fire levy instead of borrowing money, which costs taxpayers more in interest payments.
Learn more about Walla Walla County Fire District 5 at www.wwcfd5.org.