What a merger would look like. (Lake Stevens Fire)

What a merger would look like. (Lake Stevens Fire)

Merger would make mega fire district with 162,000 residents

Lake Stevens area voters will decide whether to join a district serving Monroe and Mill Creek.

LAKE STEVENS — A bigger, better, faster and stronger fire district. That is what the fire chiefs of two local fire districts say a proposed merger would bring to their communities.

On the Aug. 6 primary ballot is a proposal to merge District 8 in Lake Stevens into Snohomish County District 7, which serves more than 116,000 people from Mill Creek to Monroe and beyond. Only voters in the Lake Stevens Fire District will have a vote, since their district would be merging into District 7.

“What this does is it takes two outstanding teams, two great teams that provide fire and life safety services and brings them in together into one stronger team,” Lake Stevens Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien said. “What this means is improved service to all of our citizens.”

The district would use 11 stations with a combined 234 responders. They’d serve 162,000 residents across 140 square miles. Officials estimate that would amount to 17,670 alarms each year.

Though the districts are separated geographically by Fire District 4 in and around Snohomish, a merger, permitted by state law due to the districts close proximity, would create an efficient fire district, despite the 15-minute drive separating them.

“We are always seeking ways that can improve our service,” O’Brien said, citing the growing population and increased number of calls his department has received. “We need to look at ways to be innovative and partner and do the best we can with the taxpayers dollars. Merging is a way to accomplish that.”

In 2016, Fire District 3 in Monroe successfully merged with Fire District 7 as voters approved the fusion by more than 80%. The Lynnwood Fire Department and District 1 made a similar coupling in 2017 becoming South Snohomish County Fire & Rescue.

The two districts along Highway 9 already collaborate often, sharing fire marshals, training programs, medical services, administrative teams, maintenance facilities and often responding to the same calls.

Consolidation would give the district a larger budget and the ability to create a capital plan conducive to a larger area.

Expanded staffing would aid District 8, which at times has been forced to “brown out” stations from responding, because of too few firefighters, while also increasing the number of specialized response units, like rescue swimmers and wildland firefighters.

“It’ll be an expensive operation there’s no question,” District 7 Fire Chief Gary Meek said. “It’ll be one big expensive operation, but we will be able to do it cheaper than we are today, I firmly believe that.”

Expenses wouldn’t be felt by property owners. Both districts have a levy rate of $2 per $1,000 of assessed property value — $1.50 for fire and 50 cents for emergency medical services — previously approved by voters that cannot be exceeded in the merger.

While O’Brien and Meek said opposition to the unification has been minimal, they want to ensure the community that it won’t be losing the support of local stations.

Assistance and involvement at Aquafest, for instance, will not waver from Lake Stevens Fire. Nor will it lessen at the Evergreen State Fair in Monroe or the Mill Creek Festival from District 8.

“When we merge, the identities of our fire stations in our community are not going away,” O’Brien said.

If the merger is approved, it would be approached like the creation of a new organization. O’Brien would take over as fire chief and Meek would serve as a liaison.

The fire district would also adopt a new name.

“We do have to retool to think like a larger organization, we are no longer a small fire protection district,” Meek said. “The same challenges exist today, they would just be bigger.”

To make the transition as smooth as possible, the districts have already established a 30-person Cultural Integration Team, with 15 members from each district, to discuss and establish what the organization’s culture will look like following a merger.

As for the community, the fire chiefs are hoping it will appear seamless.

“I don’t really want the citizens to see a big change,” O’Brien said. “The changes they will see is when they call 911 they will have highly trained personnel quickly and they will help them.”

Ballots were sent out across Snohomish County on Thursday.

Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3449; idavisleonard@heraldnet.com. Twitter: IanDavisLeonard.

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