East Pierce looks to grants to fill critical firefighter positions

East Pierce Fire and Rescue is looking to hire nine new firefighters, and is turning to the federal government for help. Last month, the department applied for a federal grant that would allow East Pierce to hire nine entry-level firefighters to help address staffing shortfalls.

East Pierce Fire and Rescue’s last fatal fire occurred August 2016 in a Prairie Ridge mobile home. One man was trapped in the home, and was pronounced dead at the scene. Photo by East Pierce Fire and Rescue

East Pierce Fire and Rescue is looking to hire nine new firefighters, and is turning to the federal government for help.

Last month, the department applied for a federal grant that would allow East Pierce to hire nine entry-level firefighters to help address staffing shortfalls.

If the grant – known as the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant (SAFER) – is awarded to the department, it would cover 75 percent of the cost of hiring those new firefighters in the first year.

The grant would reduce over the next two years, and by the fourth year, East Pierce would be expected to cover the cost of those nine firefighters on its own.

Currently, East Pierce employs 43 career firefighter-paramedics and 62 firefighter-EMTs, as well as 27 volunteers, who cover East Pierce’s 153 square-mile area from the edges of Buckley, past Sumner and up into Edgewood and Milton.

Fire Chief Bud Backer said there’s a difference between the total number of career firefighters employed and what’s needed to be properly staffed.

East Pierce operates three 24-hour, rotating shifts. Currently, minimum staffing is 22 firefighters, meaning there are, at the very least, 22 firefighters staffing the six fire stations in the district.

Those stations have either three or four career firefighters/EMTs there at a time, and that few firefighters is not consistent with National Fire Protection Association guidelines, Backer said, which recommends that fire departments have at four firefighters to a fire engine or ladder truck and two EMTs per medic unit.

According to Backer, none of East Pierce’s engines are staffed with four firefighters, and at the moment, only the department’s ladder truck has a crew of three.

Because most of East Pierce’s engines only have two firefighters per engine, they run the risk of coming up against the state’s two-in, two-out rule.

The rule mandates that there must be four firefighters on scene before firefighters can enter a burning building – two to go in and potentially rescue victims of the fire, and two to stay outside as backup. Without that backup, firefighters are legally not allowed to enter the building.

“There is an exception, that the three person crew can address, and that is the ability to conduct search and rescue operations inside a burning building as long as we have two-in and one-out,” Backer wrote.

By hiring nine entry-level firefighters, Backer continued, staffing at each of East Pierce’s stations would rise from 22 per shift to 25, which would give three engines a crew of three firefighters, still leaving two engines with crews of two.

“That doesn’t meet NFPA (National Fire Protection Association), but it reflects the realistic regional standard, and allows those engines to immediately conduct interior rescue operations when they are the only unit at the scene,” Backer wrote.

However, the rise in staffing isn’t automatic – entry-level firefighters in East Pierce are put on an 18 month probation period, and during that time, they are not considered part of minimum staffing.

That means entry-level firefighters can ride along as the third member of an engine crew, Backer wrote, but if they’re sick or out on vacation, they’re not replaced by another firefighter, bringing that crew of three down to a crew of two.

According to Backer, all of the department’s medic units are staffed with one EMT and one paramedic, but added that NFPA recommends two paramedics and no EMT.

INCREASED NUMBER OF CALLS

One of the reasons East Pierce is pursuing the SAFER grant is because, for the fourth year in a row, the department responded to a record number of calls.

According East Pierce’s Operations Support Administrator Michelle Hollon, the department responded to 10,259 emergency calls last year, a 5 percent increase from 2015.

However, the vast majority (7,702 calls, or 75 percent) of calls were emergency medical calls, a 617 call increase from 2015.

Only around 268 calls (2.6 percent) of calls were fire related, which was down from the 347 fire calls in 2015, partly due to a large number of brush fires in 2015. Additionally, 78 calls (0.7 percent) in 2016 calls were for structure fires, up from 76 calls in 2015.

Backer wrote that even though fire calls are less common and are increasing at a slower rate than EMS calls, the department still doesn’t have the adequate staff to respond to fire calls.

“I suppose we could choose to fund an ambulance or medical department only and not provide much of a fire suppression capability,” he continued. “But most fires I’ve been at, the people want us to put it out.”

According to Backer, the increasing number of EMS calls is driving home the need for a fifth medic unit in the department, but he noted that all East Pierce firefighters are also trained as an EMT or paramedic, and each fire engine are licensed EMS vehicles that carry medical equipment (although they cannot transport patients).

PRESENT AND FUTURE COST

If East Pierce is awarded the SAFER grant, 75 percent of the cost of those nine new firefighters would be covered in the first year.

Backer estimated employing nine new firefighters would come out at around $882,000 in the first year, meaning the grant would cover roughly $661,500.

But the grant covers much less of the cost over the next two years.

“Each year, the grant covers a percentage of the cost of an entry level firefighter. The language works great in the first year, but in the second, the guys aren’t entry level any more, they’ve bumped up in grade, and again in the third year,” Backer wrote. “So by the grant wording, it covers 75 percent in years one and two, and 35 percent in year three of entry level Firefighter wages/benefits. Realistically, while being 75 percent in year one, that’s closer to 68 percent in year two and probably 25 percent in year three because those firefighters will be paid at a higher rate than entry level at that time.”

By year four, Backer estimated it will cost the department approximately $1.3 million to continue to employ those nine firefighters, when inflation, increased pay and other cost factors are figured in.

But as East Pierce currently stands financially, the department’s fire and EMS levies would not bring in enough revenue to continue employing those nine firefighters when the grant ran out.

Last year, voters approved of an EMS levy lid lift, allowing the EMS levy to reset back to its $0.50 maximum.

East Pierce also collected a $1.50 fire levy, totaling to $2 for every $1,000 in assessed property value in 2016.

But the state only allows municipalities and fire departments like East Pierce to collect only 1 percent more in property taxes over the previous year.

In order to adjust for growth and not collect more than 1 percent, the fire levy depreciated to $1.38 per $1,000 in assessed value this year.

Backer originally thought he’d have to ask voters for a levy lid lift every two years, but with the fire levy being hit that hard, he expects to ask voters for a fire lid lift this year, and potentially another lid lift in the third year of the grant, if it’s awarded.

If East Pierce can collect the full $2 in levies, and construction growth is factored in, Backer wrote the department can afford to cover the costs of those nine new firefighters by year four.

“I’m not going to do what some departments have done in the past, and hire folks that I can’t afford to keep after the grant funding has expired,” he continued. “If we’re not collecting at that rate, or near it, we should still be able to keep the people, but may slide back in the number of firefighters on duty as we wouldn’t fill vacancies created by retirements, which we anticipate several in the next five to seven years. That would allow us to avoid layoffs, but at the cost of lower service levels and decreased safety.”

However, district voters may still see a Maintenance and Operations levy or a Fire Benefit Charge find their way to an election ballot.

“We don’t have many choices for seeking funds due to statutory limitations,” Backer wrote. “Honestly, with rising need for more units on the road, and the potential of two or three new stations in the next 10 or so years, we’ll probably have to do that anyway.”

CORRECTION: It was originally reported that East Pierce worked eight-hour shifts in 24 hours. The article has been updated to show firefighters work 24 hour shifts every three days.

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