After a vote to consolidate the fire departments of Central Grays Harbor into a single regional fire authority marked by abysmal turnout from residents failed in April, the three departments are staring down a future of going it independently
Deferred studies, purchasing and planning are all back to the forefront, said leadership from the departments. The Daily World sat down with the chiefs of the departments as they examine what the future will look like.
“From here, we’re still all going to work together,” said Hoquiam Fire Chief Matt Miller. “We’re also going to need to focus on our individual departments and moving forward.”
While the departments will maintain their close working relationships, a lot of efficiencies and cost-saving measures that would have been available to the RFA operating as a single organization are not available to the departments as separate entities, Miller said.
“As the chief of Aberdeen, I thought the planning committee and staff had put together a good plan to ensure and maintain a sustainable service both operationally and fiscally into the future. But the voters saw different so we need to move forward from there,” said Aberdeen Fire Chief Dave Golding. “The Aberdeen firefighters need to regroup and see ourselves as Aberdeen into the future, not the RFA.”
Increasing consumer prices everywhere are going to be a bigger and bigger challenge in the future, Golding said.
“Factors that we’re looking at that everybody is facing is raising costs,” Golding said. “We’re looking at how we can absorb those raising costs. That’s everything from fuel to medical supplies to office supplies.”
One of the things Aberdeen was deferring was a study on emergency medical services that Golding said he’d hoped to defer until they were operating as a consolidated RFA.
“Our budget has kind of crept up. It has not truly kept up, I don’t think, with, especially the last few years, the cost of doing business,” Golding said. “One of the things I’m going to have to do sooner than later is a cost of service study for EMS.”
Other departments also have acquisitions, projects and studies that they were hoping to hold off until after the consolidation that’s no longer happening, Miller said.
No defense in depth
“I got approval from the city council on Monday to move forward with replacing my oldest ambulance,” Miller said. “With the RFA, that was the kind of thing we could have surplused. It’s in reserve now, and it needs to be replaced.”
Departments are required to have backup vehicles, Miller said, but with the RFA, there needed only be backups for the single organizations, as opposed to Aberdeen, Cosmopolis and Hoquiam all maintaining backup vehicles.
“With the RFA, we wouldn’t have needed as much equipment. Individually, we need to look into that,” Miller said. “Everyone’s got to have their own.”
Hoquiam isn’t the only department looking down the barrel of vehicle replacements. Golding said he’s also got vehicles that’ll need replacing sooner than later.
“I’ve got to start thinking about fire apparatus replacement. Even though we just within the last few years got two new pieces of fire apparatus, our other two are 20-plus years old,” Golding said. “One is starting to show its age.”
Fire department vehicles put a lot of wear on their engines as part of firefighting operations that might not be obvious just looking at miles driven, and the specialist vehicles are hardly inexpensive to replace, Golding said.
“That’s a couple million dollar investment right there,” Golding said. “The hope with the RFA was we wouldn’t have to maintain as many reserve apparatus. Doing it alone, we have to maintain the reserve apparatus.”
Other necessary supplies also add up, said Cosmopolis Fire Chief Nick Falley.
“We need to replace our structural bunker gear,” Falley said in an interview. “Five guys, five sets.”
The bunker gear, or protective clothing that firefighters wear to protect themselves as they breach into burning structures, is not a cheap buy, costing several thousand dollars a set, Falley said. Other costs, from speciality gear like heart monitors to more mundane requirements like fuel and office supplies, all costs money, Miller said.
“Last year, I spent $88,000 on medical supplies alone. That’s anything from Band-Aids and bandaging to medications to oxygen. Anything that is a medical supply,” Golding said. “I’m on pace for just over $90,000 based on year to date. Those costs are increasing.”
Facilities are also in the spotlight. While the primary stations for all three aren’t in dire straits at the moment, the decades-old firehouses aren’t going to last forever.
“Facilities is a big issue for the next few years,” Golding said. “One thing that’s really on the forefront for the city of Aberdeen is facilities. We’re going to have to tackle that.”
Miller echoed that — while the half-century old firehouse is in pretty good shape, there are issues that need addressing, he said.
“It’s in good shape. We’ve done a good job of maintaining it. However recently we’ve discovered some water and rot issues that we’re going to have to tackle,” Miller said. “Age is starting to catch up with it. There are some issues, structural type issues, that need to be addressed.”
For Cosmopolis, Falley said he’s looking at how to get overnight shifts into the building, increasing volunteer coverage of the town.
“We’re trying to make sure the station is safe for employees and equipment,” Falley said. “We’re working on getting the station for shifts and having volunteers be able to stay here.”
All of the departments are constantly in need of more personnel to help deal with the rising call volume, Miller said, from Hoquiam and Aberdeen’s professional departments to Cosi’s volunteers.
“We’re going to keep trying to build our volunteer program,” Falley said. “For now we’re going to keep working with Aberdeen.”
A study several years ago highlighted the dire need for more staff to deal with increasing call volumes, Miller said, some of the highest rates in the state.
“Hoquiam needs three additional staff. In that study, Aberdeen was shown to need seven. Our goal with the RFA was to increase the staffing by three overall,” Miller said. “If you look back over the last 30 years, our call volume has obviously increased drastically. Our staffing levels have maintained at 21. If you go back to the late ‘80s early ‘90s we actually had 24.”
The RFA would have offered improved career prospects for potential new joins, Golding said, with increased opportunity for promotion and specialist training.
“That is something we heard throughout this RFA process when we were interviewing people,” Golding said. “The candidates would ask us about the RFA and seemed excited about that prospect, coming into a new and larger entity.”
However, with that off the table, departments will have to look to their cities to help out with the staffing shortfalls.
“We need to address the staffing issue. I’m not sure how we’re going to address that and find the funding mechanisms for that,” Miller said. “We would love to get three more onboard tomorrow to help up my daily staffing. But unfortunately, everything costs money and prices are rising across the board.”
There’s some disappointment in the ranks about the failure to consolidate, Miller said. The firefighter’s union, Central Grays Harbor Professional Firefighters Local 315, consolidated itself last year in support of the measure.
“I know specifically on the Hoquiam side my guys and gals were looking forward to becoming one big agency and helping tackle our community issues as opposed to two separate ones,” Miller said. “Bringing on additional staffing would have provided a little reprieve during the day.”
While none of the departments are making immediate changes with the decision, they’re having to look forward to what can be done, and deciding what services might not be economical to continue to offer in order to maintain operations.
While many residents voiced concerns about increased costs that came with the RFA, rates may increase anyway in order to simply keep the department running, Miller said.
“The city of Hoquiam has always tried to limit fee increases that we pass on to the citizens,” Miller said. “We are starting to feel the pinch of keeping them low.”
While Aberdeen has been able to keep its service rates stable by using reserve funds, that’s no longer a practical option, Golding said.
“We’ve been able to keep it down by using reserves. But that’s no longer sustainable,” Golding said. “We can’t just spend it down. We have to have the rainy day fund. That’s one of the first things we have to look at is the EMS service and its rates.”
Aberdeen’s cost of service study may adjust what residents have to pay for the service, Golding said.
“That’ll help give us a better picture of what our EMS charges, including the availability fee, should truly look like,” Golding said. “I anticipate it being higher than $28 that it is right now.”
Miller said while the department will continue to do all it can, the department needs to be funded to be able to do its job — it can’t operate forever without matching pace with an economy that’s outstripping it.
“We need to continue to do what we can for the community and offer these services but it’s becoming more and more difficult,” Miller said.
Golding said he doesn’t anticipate any immediate visible changes with the department, but they are having to consider options for keeping operations sustainable.
“Are we going to be able to maintain our level of service to the outlying districts that we cover for EMS?” Golding said, speaking hypothetically about something they might have to evaluate. “Are we going to be able to maintain that relationship? I want to. But is it going to be possible to maintain that level of service to them?”
A lot of the issues that departments were hoping to put off until consolidation are now moving to the forefront, Falley said.
“I felt like we had a good plan, but we’ve heard the citizens loud and clear that it’s not what they would like,” Falley said. “So we’re going to move forward accordingly.”
Golding expressed his hopes that the changes the departments are facing don’t push the firefighters beyond what they’re capable of, as the demands for service mount. “Nothing hard and fast is going to change immediately. It’s going to take some time to really look at our operations. As a department and a city, what can we continue to do? Are there going to be cuts, and if so where?” Golding said. “Firefighters are our own worst enemies. We will break ourselves to make it work. I don’t want to put my employees in that position.”
Contact Senior Reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or email@example.com.