Fire station rhetoric has become alarming

From recent rhetoric, you’d think that public safety is little more than a political football in the City of Everett.

Of course, that’s absurd. Funding for police and fire protection has gone from 54 percent of the general operating budget in 2001 to 58 percent this year. And despite fears to the contrary, when the city’s waterfront fire station (currently doubling as a football) is torn down as part of the Port of Everett’s marina redevelopment, it will be replaced. The only question is where.

Newspaper ads placed by the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 46 insist that a replacement for Fire Station 3 must be located at the waterfront for the area to be adequately protected. Mayor Ray Stephanson and Fire Chief Murray Gordon disagree, for a number of good reasons. What is absolutely clear is that Stephanson, Gordon and the city’s fine firefighters agree on this: Public safety must be the city’s No. 1 priority.

Stephanson and Gordon also are responsible to deliver public-safety services as efficiently and effectively as possible. Doing that in a city of 96,000 residents entails assessing risks and acting accordingly.

Stephanson’s preference is to replace Fire Station 3 by refurbishing an old downtown fire station at Oakes Avenue and California Street, which currently houses department administration. If that proves feasible, work could begin soon after it’s clear when the existing Station 3 will be demolished.

Gordon says fire engines stationed at a new downtown station will be able to reach the waterfront well within the national response standard of four minutes. Union President Bob Downey counters that by the time hoses were hooked up to fight a boat fire, it would be too late.

A key point stands out regarding boat fires: There have been only five at the marina in the past four years. Even after the marina is expanded, the threat won’t be big enough to drive the decision on where to put a replacement station.

The current Station 3 was opened in 1970, when shingle mills, lumber yards and working piers dominated the waterfront. Today, all the mills except Kimberly-Clark’s are gone, and the Navy takes up 117 acres and handles its own fire response. New buildings on the way will meet modern fire codes. Add the fact that 80 percent of Station 3’s calls last year were outside its primary response area, and the argument for moving it downtown becomes a powerful one.

A charge by union leaders that the fire chief and an aide to Stephanson offered a replacement station in exchange for the union’s endorsement of the mayor’s re-election bid makes no sense. The mayor already had committed, on a number of occasions, to replacing the station before such a “deal” was allegedly offered. He had nothing to gain from any such quid pro quo.

With negotiations for a new contract about to get underway, tensions between city officials and firefighters could get testy. The union is likely to be asked to begin paying a portion of rising health-care costs. To his credit, Downey said he is open to that as part of a package firefighters find acceptable overall. Wisely, he said he would rather negotiate a deal than have an arbitrator impose one.

But the future location of Fire Station 3 won’t be part of those talks. That decision should be left to the mayor and City Council, with appropriate input from fire professionals.

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