My career in the fire service began humbly more than 30 years ago. I started as a high school intern and progressed to volunteer and then career firefighter. For the past 17 years, I have been one of your elected fire commissioners.
Soon after becoming a commissioner, it became apparent that combining district resources would help us keep up with state and federal mandates as well as the rising costs of providing service for the growing needs of our community. The trend in Washington state was for small cities to contract for fire and EMS services with surrounding fire districts or annex into the surrounding fire district. Examples include the cities of Sequim, Poulsbo and Shelton, which all have annexed into their neighboring fire districts.
We continue to face many challenges. Together we can weather these issues and grow as a department.
Fire departments across Jefferson County have partnered for years by negotiating contracts and forming mutual aid agreements. In our own community, the Chimacum Fire Department previously contracted with the city of Port Townsend Fire Department for EMS and transport services. The former county fire district 6 had a similar contract for service – a city of Port Townsend aid car would automatically respond into fire district 6 for EMS calls.
About 13 years ago, fire districts 6 and 1 began to discuss a merger. That was approved by commissioners in 2005, resulting what we now know as Jefferson County Fire Protection District 1.
Once the merger was complete, fire district 1 officials and the Port Townsend City Council began to plan for the city to be annexed into the district. The logical first step was for the city to contract with the district for fire and EMS.
In 2007, an interlocal agreement was approved and signed by six of the seven city council members and all six fire commissioners, forming what residents rely on today as East Jefferson Fire Rescue. That was a pivotal moment in our county’s history, and it showed great collaboration between the leadership of the city and fire district.
East Jefferson Fire Rescue owns the apparatus and facilities and employs of all fire department employees and volunteers you see today. The city of Port Townsend no longer has its own fire department. The consolidated effort through the 2007 contract reduced administrative costs and enabled us to redirect financial resources to emergency response and operations. We have been successfully functioning in that capacity thus far.
The final step is successful annexation. It requires the approval of voters in both the fire district and the city of Port Townsend. Annexation will provide equal representation and equal taxation across the entire service area.
Currently, city residents do not have voting representation on the board of fire commissioners. We continue to struggle with equalization of tax rates, and redundancies of effort also still exist.
Annexation isn’t the final challenge facing the fire district, only a positive and necessary step in the direction of progress. Together, we are better-equipped to prepare for the future and provide vital emergency services for our community.
Together, we are better.
Rich Stapf Jr. is an elected fire commissioner for Jefferson County Fire Protection District 1, also known as East Jefferson Fire Rescue.