Wash FDs Look at Impact of Budget Decline

Departments focused on maintenance and held off on new stations, fire apparatus over last few years.

Kitsap Sun, Bremerton, Wash.

March 09--As property values decline and cities battle budget constraints, fire departments and districts are facing tough decisions on vehicle and facility maintenance.

"What we are facing right now is the ability to maintain services levels and capital," North Kitsap Fire and Rescue Chief Dan Smith said.

A large majority of area fire districts' revenue comes from levies on property tax. Nearly 90 percent of North Kitsap Fire and Rescue's revenue relies on fire and EMS levies -- fire is capped at $1.50 per $1,000 assessed property value and EMS is 50 cents per $1,000.

NKFR's tax revenue declined about $130,000 from 2011 to 2012. The district's projected tax revenue this year is $4.8 million. In 2009, it was $5.3 million.

"We've left positions unfilled. We've frozen wages. We've deferred maintenance on our facilities," said Michele Laboda, NKFR public information officer.

The district also has put off buying new vehicles, focusing on maintenance of vehicles until they have to be replaced.

"Due to regular maintenance and testing, we know those vehicles are fully functioning," Laboda said.

A new ambulance costs about $200,000 and a new engine is around $600,000, while a ladder truck could be close to $1 million, according to Smith.

Poulsbo Fire Department recently bought a new ambulance that it was scheduled to buy in 2006 but couldn't because of dwindling funds. Most of the department's engine's are nearly 20 years old, according to spokesperson Jody Matson.

Washington Survey and Rating Bureau recommends fire engines have 15 years service or less as a first responding truck and 25 years or less for reserve engines.

Vehicles older than the suggested age can lead to deficiency points for a fire district, which can increase the cost of fire insurance for people living in the fire district or department's coverage area.

South Kitsap Fire Rescue also is trying to recover from a worn out fleet and aging buildings, according to Fire Chief Steve Wright.

Routine maintenance has been done to the fire engines and vehicles, but -- like other vehicles -- technology and safety have improved.

Anti-lock brakes and air bags also are important in firetrucks, Wright said.

And those types of updates are not ones fire districts can make to old vehicles.

Another problem is emission regulations, according to Paul Anderson, Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue's repair and maintenance manager. Newer vehicles that are required to meet the new standards cost more.

In 2010, the federal government enacted more strict emission standards and safety requirements for new vehicles, according to Smith, increasing the cost of fire engines that year by 8 percent to 10 percent -- $4,800 to $6,000. NKFR did not buy any new vehicles that year.

Typically, engine and ambulance costs increase about 4 percent or 5 percent each year, Smith said.

Although fire departments, and not districts, are funded by local cities and more revenue sources, such as sales tax and permit taxes, among others, it is shared with other city departments.

As cities face budget constraints, so do fire departments.

Bremerton fire's stations are older, like many fire stations in Kitsap County, but they are brick and without wood frames, helping reduce maintenance. The department also is looking at trying to extend the life of its vehicles -- 15 years for first responds and 20 years for second response, according to Battalion Chief Mike Seacrest.

South Kitsap Fire and Rescue has 15 stations, most built in the 1960s and 1970s, which have wooden frames.

SKFR Chief Steve Wright is having a detailed analysis done for the district to know what equipment needs to be replaced and the condition of facilities.

The district has been deferring indoor maintenance to stations -- painting, new carpet or flooring -- for the past five or six years, like many of the other area fire districts. "Eventually, that has be to addressed," Wright said.

While maintenance to buildings can be deferred, maintenance and replacement of vehicles affect response times and services.

Poulsbo Fire had to limit its annual Santa run, which uses a fire engine. There were not enough working engines to spare, because of continued breakdowns and maintenance, the department said in a statement before Christmas.

NKFR started looking at some "innovative" vehicle options to save money.

It recently bought a 2001 ambulance from surplus in Vermont for $15,000. After updates are made to the vehicle, it will cost the department around $35,000, compared to a new ambulance at $200,000.

"You have to think out of the box," Smith said.

Copyright 2014 - Kitsap Sun, Bremerton, Wash.

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