Central county fire departments tilt at RFA once more

The Daily World sat down with all three chiefs to discuss the proposed consolidation.

For anyone who’s lived in Aberdeen or Hoquiam for longer than six months, the idea of combining the fire departments in the two cities into a regional fire authority, a special purpose district, is not a new one. An attempt was made and failed narrowly just last year.

But now, the fire departments, with the addition of the Cosmopolis Fire Department, are making the attempt again — the issue will appear on the ballot in all three cities on April 25.

The Daily World sat down with the chiefs of all three departments: Chief Dave Golding of Aberdeen, Chief Matt Miller of Hoquiam, Chief Nick Falley of Cosmopolis and Assistant Chief Ryan Knodel of the Aberdeen Fire Department, as well as talking to other key players in the arrangement.

An idea whose time has come

“This is the third time in the last 20 years it’s been discussed,” Miller said. “This is the furthest it’s gotten.”

The creation of an RFA follows a trend statewide as departments combine into larger organizations better able to help residents and carry out their mission, Miller said.

“You are seeing departments across the state combining for the same reasons,” Miller said. “It’s the trend of consolidating multiple departments to become more efficient, to become more cognizant of the services they’re trying to provide.”

Leaving the departments as they are runs the risk of overburdening their capability as calls continue to increase, Miller said. For individual departments to hire enough firefighters to deal with the call volume would be a more expensive option for taxpayers, according to a feasibility study.

“All of their recommendations were: Do. Something. Now,” said Ryan Cline, president of Central Grays Harbor Professional Firefighters — IAFF Local 315, the combined union for the Hoquiam and Aberdeen fire departments. “​​For the RFA plan, we’re in full support.”

The increasing call numbers are putting increased strain on the individual departments, Miller said; consolidating into an RFA would help to take up the load and make sure residents of the area are being served ably and effectively.

“The system is not broken, but it’s bending to the point where it’s getting ready to break,” Miller said.

What’s the situation now?

Currently, all three departments are separate entities. Mutual aid agreements mean that Hoquiam and Aberdeen already work closely together, while Aberdeen is also contracted to respond to calls in Cosmopolis.

“We’re still three separate departments,” Miller said. “We’re essentially duplicating some functions that are required in fire departments.”

Aberdeen and Hoquiam have seen call numbers steadily increase over the last decade, increasing 34% by 2022, without a commensurate increase in staffing levels — the same, set number of Hoquiam firefighters are responding to thousands more calls per year than they used to, Miller said, as well as dealing with the loss of the assistant chief position.

“We haven’t had any new personnel (positions) for almost 30 years,” Miller said.

In Aberdeen, the department managed to get three new firefighter positions several years ago, but they’re still dealing with a growing number of calls every year, Golding said — some of the highest rates in the state, alongside Hoquiam. Aberdeen had a record number of calls last year, Golding said.

“We’re the busiest we’ve even been. It’s a 24-hour operation,” Cline said. “We’re day in and day out.”

That increasing workload shows in outcomes and response times, Golding said. Increasing call numbers means that department personnel may be on another call when an emergency happens, taking help longer to arrive, and in fires and medical emergencies, time is everything.

“People will say, ‘I’ve called 911 and people have showed up.’ But little do they know the appropriate resources did not show up.” Cline said. “We’ll have to go to bring in other resources from other agencies.”

Why combine?

Hoquiam and Aberdeen have historically enjoyed a close working relationship, one that grew tighter on the watch of former fire chief Tom Hubbard, who served as chief of both the HFD and AFD for several years from 2018 to 2022 before retiring.

“Chief Hubbard as a chief of Hoquiam did an excellent job for the Hoquiam Fire Department, but also modernizing and bringing Hoquiam Fire Department up to current practices. We grew more in the 3.5 to 4 years he was chief than the 10 years prior to that,” Miller said. “Because he was chief of both departments it helped us intertwine our operations and how we work together.”

However, they’re still different departments belonging to different cities. That builds in delays in responses as different departments coordinate their availability, and time can mean lives in an emergency.

“Under the RFA, you’re getting the closest unit available to you,” Falley said.

Having a single department would remove the boundaries of geography and communication that can slow a response, Golding said.

“It’s three different departments, three administrations, three city councils. There’s so much overhead where the RFA will consolidate,” Miller said. “It’ll let us do our work most efficiently.”

Efficiency is the watchword of the proposed consolidation: from being able to respond more quickly to emergencies with the appropriate level of force, to being able to get rid of superfluous gear, to being able to offer better prospects and opportunities for firefighters themselves, according to Knodel.

“It’s more streamlined,” Knodel said.

What will change?

On the face of things, not much. The stations will remain open. The trucks aren’t getting repainted. When you call 911, firefighters will respond. But underneath the surface, beyond the flashing lights and dashing uniforms, the machinery that brings those firefighters to your door that trains them, that equips them, that supports them, will be leaner and more powerful, Golding said.

“No stations or firefighters are lost in this plan,” Miller said. “Cosi has been built into the response plans and staffing models. The only thing is that that’s now called Station Five.”

With the three cities all subsumed into the RFA, the expanded department can allocate firefighters where the needs are. If a sudden population boom in Hoquiam means they’re receiving more calls, more firefighters can operate out of stations there, offered Golding in an example.

“The boundaries are gone between all three cities. You can address the needs across the whole RFA, Miller said. “Analyze, address, and allocate.”

Much of the planning has been accomplished by the chiefs planning ahead, with the new arrangements and responsibilities already lined out.

“The number of administrators you have today would be the same,” Golding said. “It might be rearranged a little differently.”

Included in that is a reorganization of leadership and administrative roles, including the creation of a dedicated medical services officer to oversee the department’s training, equipment, drugs and other medical-related minutiae, instead of having a captain take it on as a collateral duty.

“We know it in and out because we come here every day,” Cline said. “The cities have attempted to keep the departments afloat, but we can invest so much more as an RFA because we feel the dollar goes farther for the public.”

Training is another major consideration, said Knodel — with larger shifts, it makes it simpler to take a station offline to complete training required by any number of state, federal or international organizations, instead of being constantly interrupted by calls, as currently happens with the smaller department.

“There’s more opportunity for hands-on training,” Knodel said. “Right now we try to do that and we have to go on calls.”

The creation of an RFA offers more opportunities for specialization, advancement and training than a smaller department with a smaller budget does, Golding said, all of which help recruitment and retention.

“I feel being a bigger department is going to appeal to more firefighter candidates and allow us to get more recruitment,” Cline said. “Firefighters — it’s their natural tendency to want to advance themselves and improve themselves.”

The opportunity to help build and shape a brand-new department can be a powerful incentive, Golding said.

“That would be a huge help for us. It’s very intriguing for potential employees to come to an RFA, especially on the ground floor,” Golding said. “There’s the potential of specialized teams down the road.”

There’s also cost savings associated with combining in standardizing gear and getting rid of spare kits the departments don’t need. Departments need to have a reserve engine — that’s three in the three cities, Golding said.

“Doing away with redundancies that each department has, there is potential for cost savings being one agency,” Golding said. “Reserve engines — we don’t need that many reserve engines. (If you don’t have it,) you don’t have to insure it. You don’t have to maintain it.”

There’s also cost savings down the line, Miller said, as gear updates get more efficient with the magic of bulk purchases. Standardized equipment is cheaper to buy in larger quantities, with the added benefit of making sure that members of the RFA will have the same tools, the same equipment, the same drugs, in the same places, no matter which station or vehicle they’re working with.

All parties have also expressed support for station dogs.

“They have proved that having a station dog improves mental health,” Cline said. “A dog in a fire station is helpful for our mental wellness and our mental fatigue.”

What will it require?

To bring the RFA to life requires a yes-vote from more than 50% of the people in the city limits in the April 25 ballot, Golding said.

Funding the RFA was what sank the last attempt, Miller said. A different funding mechanism had been proposed, which required a complicated and poorly-understood formula to find out what one would owe.

“During the second go-round, the biggest reason people voted no was the funding mechanism,” Miller said. “It was increasing yearly taxes for a lot of people. We trimmed the plan back, understanding from the community’s concerns that we were asking for too much.”

Introducing a new funding mechanism also required a 60% majority vote to ratify. The measure missed the target by a few percent. Now, the revised plan relies on existing funding mechanisms — a $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed value fire levy, and the ambulance utility fee, a flat monthly fee. Residents already pay both of these fees, Falley said.

“Your taxes, the amount remains the same,” Falley said. “It’ll look a little different. The ‘pizza’ remains the same size. It’s not adding another slice.”

The ambulance utility fee, also known as the availability fee, is currently different in all three cities, but will be leveled for all residents. The estimated availability fee will increase slightly from the current levels, said Hoquiam Finance Director Corri Schmid, to reflect the decoupling of the departments from cities that help subsidize fire department operations and the proposed increase in staff by four positions — the MSO and three firefighters. As individual departments, Schmid said, the departments would almost certainly have to raise rates by more than the RFA will in order to stay abreast of the climbing call volume.

“For any cost associated with the RFA, the fees are the same, the revenues are the same, regardless of where you live,” Schmid said in a phone interview. “Combined we’re actually increasing staff by a very minimal amount. It’s a cost-savings.”

The availability fee is a reflection of the economically depressed state of the region, Schmid said.

“When it comes to Medicaid/Medicare, they don’t actually reimburse us what it costs to operate the ambulance,” Schmid said. “We have to have an availability fee to operate and make that service available to our citizens.”

How it would be executed

If the residents of the three cities vote yes on April 25, the plans forward are already in place, Miller said. The county would go on to elect three commissioners in at-large positions in November, who would serve six-year terms.

“As a special purpose district there’s a governing board,” Falley said. “They are their own elected officials in their own governing board. They’re who the fire chief will ultimately report to.”

For the original three positions, one would serve six, one four, and one two years, to stagger their replacements. And on Jan. 1, 2024, the Central Grays Harbor Regional Fire Authority springs into being from the three departments, which cease to exist. There will also be non-voting representatives, one from each city, to voice their city’s needs.

“We’ve got response plans, staffing plans. Almost an entire policy manual,” Miller said. “All similar policies to what we have.”

All contracts carry over, all stations remain open, and the pay remains the same or is brought up to the same level, in the case of departments getting paid less than others. Some personnel might be reshuffled between stations for better coverage, but when you call 911, you’ll get firefighters, Golding said.

“That way, you never have to worry about ‘will help come or not?’” Cline said. “As long as you’re staffed with career firefighters, help will come.”

Here in the county, both South Beach Regional Fire Authority and East Grays Harbor Fire Rescue have been created as part of this trend. Across the state, many smaller departments have amalgamated into RFAs to better serve their communities, Miller said.

“We feel that doing this is for the benefit of the community as a whole in central Grays Harbor,” Miller said. “We’re trying to provide the same service we’ve been doing, but do it in a more efficient manner to protect the citizens.”

Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or mlockett@thedailyworld.com.

Clayton Franke / The Daily World
Firefighters attend the scene of a fire in South Aberdeen that began in an RV on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022.

Clayton Franke / The Daily World Firefighters attend the scene of a fire in South Aberdeen that began in an RV on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022.

Michael S. Lockett / The Daily World File
Firefighters climb toward a structure fire that broke out on Dec. 13, 2022 outside of Aberdeen.

Michael S. Lockett / The Daily World File Firefighters climb toward a structure fire that broke out on Dec. 13, 2022 outside of Aberdeen.

Hoquiam and Aberdeen firefighters as well as the Hoquiam Police Department responded to a structure fire at a Hoquiam residence on Saturday night, Feb. 11. (Matthew N. Wells / The Daily World)

Hoquiam and Aberdeen firefighters as well as the Hoquiam Police Department responded to a structure fire at a Hoquiam residence on Saturday night, Feb. 11. (Matthew N. Wells / The Daily World)

Hoquiam firefighters respond to a structure fire on Feb. 17. (Michael S. Lockett / The Daily World)

Hoquiam firefighters respond to a structure fire on Feb. 17. (Michael S. Lockett / The Daily World)

Firefighters strip off their gear after responding to a residential structure fire in Hoquiam on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / The Daily World)

Firefighters strip off their gear after responding to a residential structure fire in Hoquiam on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022. (Michael S. Lockett / The Daily World)

Tags: ,