Regional, rather than city, fire departments proposed

Replacing several city fire departments with a regional fire organization could improve efficiency and save money, advocates say.

“Right now, there’s an opportunity to provide better service,” said Jim Kenny, chairman of the Snohomish County Fire District 1 board of directors. “There are administrative savings you’d generate by having, essentially, one fire department for all of southwest Snohomish County.”

Edmonds has considered the idea and at least two meetings have been held to discuss it. So far, however, Lynnwood has not spent a lot of time considering whether it would make more sense to swap its fire department for a regional one.

“The city of Lynnwood is always interested in discussing anything about joint operations,” Lynnwood Fire chief Gary Olson said. Right now, with annexations and other big issues looming, “it’s not something that’s number one on our plate.”

The cities of Mountlake Terrace and Brier contract for fire and paramedic service with Fire District 1.

The Legislature opened the door for regional fire agencies when it approved a law creating them in 2004. Creating a single, property-tax-supported fire department for a broader area can save money and increase efficiency, the thinking goes.

Fire authorities are like fire districts, except that cities can create them. A city like Lynnwood could annex into a fire district, like Fire District 1, but it could not help create its own.

Some Puget Sound area cities have already made the change.

In 2007, the city of Auburn jettisoned its long-standing fire department of 80 employees to become part of the Valley Regional Fire Authority with the cities of Algona and Pacific in south King County. The authority serves some 77,000 residents. Kent also has been considering abolishing its fire department.

“Algona didn’t have a fire department; they were contracting with Auburn for services for well over a decade,” said Eric Robertson, Valley Regional Fire Authority administrator.

The key issues those King County cities faced, however, were both financial and jurisdictional. Auburn and Pacific straddle two counties and, by law, were not permitted to form a fire district. So the fire authority approach made sense, Roberts said.

“When you’re talking about delivering training to firefighters, about delivering unique equipment … there’s really no need for every city to put together training materials that may or may not be used all that often,” he said.

Snohomish County has a regional fire authority today. Fire Districts 14 and 18 combined to form the North County Fire Authority in the Stanwood area.

Kenny said the cities of Mukilteo, Lynnwood, Mill Creek, Mountlake Terrace, Brier, Edmonds and Woodway, plus his fire district, could form the second fire authority.

Advocates of the plan say that today, nearly all cities operate under something called “automatic aid,” meaning the closest unit responds to the 911 call. All fire departments help each other out that way and do a good job at it, Kenny said.

On the administrative side of things, “jurisdictional lines still exist,” he said. “This is an opportunity to blur those lines and create a regional authority that can really take advantage of economies of scale.”

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