Olympia, Tumwater consider replacing city fire departments with RFA

Presentations have been made, interlocal agreements approved and now the cities of Olympia and Tumwater are putting the finishing touches on a committee that will explore whether to replace the two cities’ fire departments with a merged Regional Fire Authority (RFA).

The primary members of the committee are three elected officials from each city. Tumwater has selected council members Michael Althauser, Leatta Dahlhoff and Eileen Swarthout, and Olympia is expected to do the same on June 22, Olympia City Manager Jay Burney said.

Once the committee is formed, the two cities will share the cost of hiring a consultant to help the committee study the topic. A recommendation is expected in about 18 months. For the RFA to move forward after that, both councils would have to approve it and send it to their voters.

Fire departments in Olympia and Tumwater currently are funded by their respective cities, but an RFA would be its own taxing authority, able to levy a property tax and possibly a “fire benefit charge,” an option not available to cities.

In a recent presentation to his city council, Tumwater City Administrator John Doan compared the fire benefit charge to an impact fee.

“It becomes a charge on higher users of fire service,” he said.

If Olympia and Tumwater were to form an authority, it would not be the first.

The state created regional fire protection service authorities in 2004 and a number of them now dot Western Washington, including in Thurston County. The West Thurston Regional Fire Authority combined county fire districts No. 1 and No. 11, and the Southeast Thurston Fire Authority combined Yelm with county fire districts No. 2 and No. 4, according to the city of Tumwater.

Doan said the reason to consider an RFA is to create efficiencies while improving service. City fire departments are expensive, he said.

“It’s an expensive service with expensive equipment and expensive employees,” Doan said.

He gave this example of ways to save with an RFA: If the two city fire departments have six engine companies and six reserve engines, maybe you only need four reserve engines after the RFA is formed.

“You gain these little increments of efficiency,” he said.

City fire departments also are becoming part of history, Doan said.

“It’s becoming harder and harder in our labor discussions to find comparable information for an existing city fire department because so many are going away,” he said.

For example, the city of Lacey does not run its own fire department. The city and its urban growth area are served by Lacey Fire District 3.

The RFA also would save on management: It likely would have only one chief, Doan said, adding that “chief” probably isn’t the only job title that would encounter some duplication.

However, Olympia City Manager Burney made clear that job losses are not being considered.

“Nobody loses their job as part of merging fire departments,” he said. “You get there through attrition. It might cost you more up front, but you get to the perfect organizational structure through attrition.”

Olympia now has 88 firefighters, according to 2020 data, and Tumwater has 54 firefighters.

Although there are advantages to creating an RFA, there also are disadvantages: losing city control, the cost of starting the organization and salaries typically increase because it is a larger organization with larger comparables, Doan said.

Both Olympia and Tumwater fire chiefs, as well as union leadership, have expressed support for at least studying an RFA.

“The two departments have a long and rich history which makes it a natural fit,” Olympia Fire Chief Mark John said.

Tumwater acting Fire Chief Brian Hurley said regional fire services have proven to be effective. “It’s time we took a serious look,” he said.

Tumwater Firefighters Union President James Osberg said, “Our local supports looking at regionalization opportunities until it doesn’t make sense for our members, or our community, or our city, or our region as a whole,” he said.