Ocean Shores weighs firefighter staffing issues

An aging and expanding population will keep driving call numbers — and seriousness — up.

A Dec. 12 city council meeting will put the issue of staffing for the Ocean Shores Fire Department to vote.

The issue is a charged one, balancing the city’s financial capability and resident’s ability — and willingness — to pay more against staffing a short-handed station that often acts as the city’s first and sometimes only emergency care organization for an expanding and increasingly vulnerable population.

Both city ordinance and the FCS Group study recommend OSFD be at a minimum of seven firefighters per day, said Corey Kuhl, union president of Professional Fire Fighters Local 2109, OSFD’s union.

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“What we’re at right now is four, which is 58 percent of all three daily suggested metrics,” Kuhl said. “We should be at 29 to 30 firefighters. We’re going to be at 22 in 2023.”

But balancing the city’s budget with the needs of the residents is not something done casually, said Ocean Shores Mayor Jon Martin.

“I am aware of the challenge of a small rural city 45 minutes from our nearest hospital, an elderly population and a limited budget, and taxpayers’ desire not to increase taxes,” Martin said in an email. “My responsibility as mayor is to present a balanced budget representing the needs of all Citizens and Departments of Ocean Shores.”

The current plan is to add two positions to the department in 2023 and two more positions in 2024, said Fire Chief Mike Thuirer, bringing total strength up, while raising ambulance utility rates by several dollars per household, up from $19.03 to $28.16 per month in 2023, with exceptions made for low-income residents.

The FCS Group study offered five different potential options with costs broken out, ranging from no changes to adding nine full-time positions and bringing the monthly EMS utility rate to $37.33 next year. The option the city council will vote on isn’t on the list of possible options the study outlined, Kuhl said.

“Chief (Thuirer) requested Option Three for this budget cycle. That was what he recommended in his request,” Kuhl said. “They’re taking that, dissecting it, and creating their own option, which is two now, and two next year.”

An open wound

The average age of Ocean Shores residents is 62, Kuhl said. The population is approximately 7,000. Both the size of the population, the age of the population and the geographic area of the city are all multipliers for the number and seriousness or acuity of common emergencies.

“We had our busiest year ever in the history of this department in 2021,” Kuhl said. “2020 broke the record. 2021 broke the record again.”

Confronting emergencies with limited crews significantly increases risks, Kuhl said, as fatigue mounts and the margins of safety built in by responding in strength vanish with the limited crews.

“What the council is effectively doing is passing on this cost to us with increased workload and increased risk,” Kuhl said. “They’re putting the workload on our backs, on our shoulders. It puts the risk on our shoulders.”

The National Fire Protection Association, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing fire losses and damage, recommends 14 firefighters on-scene for a house fire, Kuhl said. It’s not the only organization that specifies more crew present for a single incident than the entire department often has on duty.

“The American Heart Association recommends 6-7 on a CPR call,” Kuhl said. “We’re already below recommendations for a CPR call. What happens is the citizens and the people we’re responding to suffer.”

The tyranny of distance

Among the issues faced when dealing with a medical emergency is Ocean Shores’ geographical isolation from the hospital, located in Aberdeen, for serious medical situations. That also creates issues when OSFD personnel conveying casualties to the hospital are taken out of play, along with their vehicles, for significant periods of time as they transport their patients, Kuhl said.

“Our medics are high mileage medics here,” Kuhl said. “We had a call recently where we had to take four people. Our station was empty.”

The problem is not a new one, said city Administrator Scott Anderson, with the chances of a major change in the situation extremely marginal.

“We know the firefighters out here in Ocean Shores are the first line of health care,” Anderson said. “This has been an issue in Ocean Shores since the inception of Ocean Shores.”

The geographic size of Ocean Shores, spread out over miles of roads interspersed with the low canals, also affects response times, Kuhl said. The south end of the city is particularly affected by this, Kuhl said. Response time is a critical factor in influencing outcomes in an emergency.

“Right now on an EMS call it takes us anywhere from 7-9 minutes to get down there. If you’re needing CPR or air, your heart starts to die at 4 minutes,” Kuhl said. “It just helps with response capability and survival rates and knockdown rates.”

Pulling in off-duty personnel may work in some places, but it’s planning for failure in Ocean Shores, Kuhl said, where many young families have trouble putting down roots, with the generally elderly average population, lack of resources for younger families, and unaffordable housing market.

“We have a lot of young families. There’s not a lot of youth programs, there’s not a lot of schooling options, the housing market is very high. The average age in Ocean Shores is 62, something like that, I believe. If you’re a family in your 20s or 30s, it’s hard,” Kuhl said. “I’ve got people that live in McCleary. I’ve got people that live in Seattle. I’ve got people that live in Lacey. As long as people show up for their scheduled shifts, they’re meeting the requirements.”

Ocean Shores’ location also means it can’t rely on other departments for assistance. Hoquiam is the closest major department, Kuhl said, and Hoquiam has its own responsibilities. Grays Harbor Fire District 7 is located north of Ocean Shores, Kuhl said, but it’s minimally staffed.


The countervailing considerations of the budgetary constraints and what taxpayers are willing to shoulder is nothing to sneeze at, Anderson said.

“This is not a good time to raise taxes,” Anderson said. “The council (Monday night) took a very brave decision to potentially raise rates to hire and bring in new staff.”

The vote on the 12th will cement the city’s decision to raise the EMS utility rate and add two positions in 2023 and 2024 one way or the other.

“People are feeling the pinch. It’s understandable,” Kuhl said, acknowledging voters are not in a spendy mood, reflected by the loss at the ballots of a measure to help fund a new police station. “Whenever you raise rates as a council person, you’re going to get backlash. People don’t want to get their utilities raised.”

The department is already in the process of staffing up several positions, Thuirer said.

“We’re currently filling three positions. We have two in the chute right now. We do have an additional paramedic we’re trying to fill,” Thuirer said. “We’re hoping on Dec. 12, pending the council’s vote, we’ll have two additional positions.”

Scraping for bodies does create its own issues, said Assistant Fire Chief Brian Ritter.

“One of the difficulties we’re finding, industry-wide and locally as well, is getting bodies in the door,” Ritter said. “It used to be, you’d wait in line for three hours just to get an application to be a firefighter. Now you have to go out and headhunt.”

The department offers opportunities and training to give the firefighters at OSFD the chance to have the best career they can, Ritter said, focusing on retention.

“We make training available. And we give people the opportunity to promote. We make this a place where they accomplish their goals and spend their careers here,” Ritter said. “We haven’t seen a mass exodus. We’d like to hold on to the talent that we have.”

For Kuhl, the current plan — adding two positions for two consecutive years — isn’t enough, with no look toward the future.

“Right now, the council has no plan to get us to suggested staffing levels. There is no five-year plan,” Kuhl said. “In the study it says we should be at that number right now. Not 2025, not 2026, not 2027. Right now.”

Evaluating options

The department is evaluating other options, Ritter said, such as reevaluating some situations that currently mandate a transport to the hospital. That process of examining current standard operating procedures is an ongoing one, Ritter said.

The issue of increasing staffing the department isn’t going away, Anderson said.

“It’s not an overnight fix,” Anderson said. “It’s something long-term.”

The city is willing to continue to discuss the issue, Martin said.

“Our council has previously approved additional positions and proposes to add more,” Martin said. “I continue to work to find financially sustainable solutions by having a dialogue with our union. I am willing to discuss potential new solutions with our citizens and unions and outside involved organizations.”

Kuhl said he hopes the city council makes a good call.

“The staffing needs and public safety risk are related. We have all the information we need to make the right decisions,” Kuhl said. “The only question is, are the people who make the decisions going to use the information they have at hand?”

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