Olympia's firefighters' union head comments about the proposed Olympia-Tumwater Regional Fire Authority

A union president's perspective on a “manufactured crisis”


There have been several articles posted in recent weeks that are largely in opposition to an April 25th, 2023 ballot measure on the Olympia-Tumwater Regional Fire Authority (RFA).

These articles and talking points are using outdated Olympia Fire Department (OFD) response data from 2015-2017. Data from 5-7 years ago can not be utilized to try and disprove the need for a RFA in 2022, nor can it be used to come to the flawed conclusion that we have a “manufactured crisis.” 

The men and women of IAFF Local 468 will disagree that this is in any way, shape, or form “manufactured.” We are working more hours and responding to more calls for help than at any point in our Department’s history. This increase in hours worked and emergencies handled is leading to an increase in Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD) as well as on-the-job physical injuries due to high levels of physical and mental fatigue and occupational burnout.

Unit Utilization and Response Times

Cited in one opposition piece was a Unit Hour Utilization study from the 2019 ESCI regionalization report. This study describes the amount of time that a unit is not available for response due to it already being committed to another incident. It proved on average that OFD was within the “ideal” range, but this data also proved that Engine Company 2 (West Olympia) was already encroaching on the “System Stressed” level. Since this study, OFD has seen an
overall call volume increase of 42% without an increase in units to handle the added stress to the system.

This data points to the reasons why our response times have increased and exceed NFPA industry standards. Now how do we make this better? We add emergency response apparatus to our system. With an increase in funding from the potential Olympia-Tumwater RFA, the mechanism for us to increase units and staffing is far more promising than that of our two Departments being separate. Outside of the creation of a multi-year strategic plan, it is hard to
predict at this time when and where these units would be placed into service.

Yes, there is a plan to add two Aid Units in the City of Olympia in 2023. But are two additional transporting units really going to be enough? Due to an increase in regional population and an overburdened emergency system that can’t keep up with demands, hospital wait times are also affecting transport units, and in turn, dramatically affecting the duration of all 911 calls for service.

Washington State Rating Bureau (WSRB)

An item that has been touted as a reason OFD does not need enhancing is our WSRB Class rating of 2, currently being one of four in the state and only being surpassed by the Seattle Fire Department. This rating is a measurement of the proximity of fire stations, staffing levels, department training, water conveyance and availability, reserve apparatus availability, fire and building code enforcement, fire investigations, and community education programs. For
example, the lower the rating, the lower the risk equating to reduced insurance premiums for fire protection.

Although increasing service demands do not directly affect community WSRB ratings, the City of Tumwater would be in a better position to achieve a Class 2 rating through regionalization, and both cities could possibly achieve a Class 1 rating.

Fire Benefit Charge

There has been plenty of concern raised about what a Fire Benefit Charge (FBC) is and how it is calculated. It has also been conveyed by opponents as a rarity amongst other Fire Authorities in the region. Currently, there are 12 Fire Departments in the Puget Sound area that utilize an FBC to form their annual operating budgets. Although new to our two cities, this is not an unheard-of method of collection.

Along with the FBC, opposition has also had concern with the percentage of actual fire responses when weighed against the FBC amount. Similar to a Fire Levy, the collection from these taxes and fees is meant to fund all programs, whether that be emergency medical services, motor vehicle accident response, wildland / urban interface fires, structure fires, etc. Currently, there is no funding mechanism to cover all the costs outside of fighting structural fires without a Levy or an FBC, and just like all other fire department’s across the nation, we provide a response to “All Hazards” that include flooding, earthquake, and any additional nonfire disasters. We will continue to provide services to these whether we regionalize or not, and with the possibility of increasing units and staffing, we would be able to provide enhanced services to both the citizens of Olympia and Tumwater during these events.

Additional Benefits of Regionalization

OFD is currently underserving the community in regard to our growing marinas and waterways. We are a Port City that lacks the capability of surface and swift water rescue nor do we have the equipment to effectively respond to marine firefighting incidents. This causes OFD to rely on our mutual aid response partners, and with adequate funding from the proposed regionalization, a marine program with a fire boat and properly trained responders is a reality.

Another pro for regionalization is providing better coverage to the underserved portions of our community near South Puget Sound CC / North Side of Tumwater Hill. This region is in desperate need of an additional fire station, and due to the proximity of both City limits, neither Olympia nor Tumwater are in a position to add a station on their own. Breaking down the two cities’ borders would provide an opportunity for a future RFA to build this station. This has a
two-fold benefit as it would reduce this communities proximity to a fire station (see WSRB ratings) in turn reducing overall response times.

Reserve funding has also been identified as a benefit of regionalization. OFD has several separate reserve funds, some of those being apparatus replacement, facility maintenance, and bunker gear replacement. For multiple years the budget enhancements and funding for these reserve programs have either been denied or underfunded due to competition with other general fund programs. This is leading to apparatus replacement schedules exceeding what has been identified as industry standard, fire station maintenance delays, and reducing other Fire Department budget areas to cover the costs of required firefighter safety equipment. These have already been identified as fully funded reserves if regionalization is successful.

All of this information about your Olympia Fire Department is not meant to be a scare tactic as cited in opposition articles, but it is meant to prove that this is not a manufactured crisis and begs the question, “What do you want your local Fire Department to look like?”

Although it is my opinion to support the Olympia-Tumwater RFA, I can attest that all of your Union Firefighters want to provide the best possible service we can. Our commitment to protect you requires your support, and the time is now to fix an ailing system before it is broken. 

Steven Busz is an 8 year member of the Olympia Fire Department, and has been on the Executive Board of IAFF Local 468 for 7 years and is currently serving as President.  

The opinions expressed above are those of the writer and not necessarily those of The JOLT's staff or board of directors.  Got something to say about a topic of interest to Thurston County residents? Send it to us and we’ll most likely publish it. See the Contribute your news button at the top of every page.


4 comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

  • JW

    I am more inclined to lend credence to those working the streets and doing the actual work than to what is seeming more and more to be a select group of individuals with a political axe to grind.

    While I think the city of Olympia especially could stop funding so many pointless projects and programs in lieu of more emergency services money, it is a vain hope that they're going to change with their current level of pandering leadership.

    This area has seen an incredible amount of growth in the last ten years and evidently our fire department(s) have not been growing with it. Everyone seems to think that combining the departments should be cheaper which generally makes sense, but not in light of what has been detailed in this letter.

    I'd prefer to see the fire department(s) separated from cities that have proven themselves overly busy with finding creative ways to spend taxpayer money and have a dedicated agency that can be solely focused on providing excellent service. The fire department has a proven track record of being exceptional already, but agencies that don't adapt and change rarely stay at that level.

    I like to imagine that this comment section will be filled with rational and lively debate over the points and details in this letter, but I fear all I'm going to see is more whining about the parks department funding, an issue that has already been noticed, recognized, and planned to be fixed.

    Monday, December 19, 2022 Report this

  • jimlazar

    Every one of us wants quality fire and medical emergency response. That's not the issue here. The issue is how to pay for that.

    The proposed Fire Benefit Charge would ONLY apply to buildings. While it might be nice to have a "marine response" unit, there is no revenue from the Port of Olympia (no property tax there). There is no revenue from the boat owners or the marina owned by the Port. So, the cost of a marine response unit would fall on homeowners, renters, and business properties.

    The proposed Fire Benefit Charge is structured as a reverse Robin Hood tax -- large homes and large apartment buildings pay a lower rate than small homes and small apartment buildings. Based on the presentation to the City Council, a small apartment building would pay about $0.23/square foot, while a large one would pay about $.03/square foot. That means that local investors with a small apartment building get stuck with a big bill, and large corporate apartment complex owners will pay a much lower rate per unit.

    There is a better way. First, the fire benefit charge could be structured based on assessed valuation. That's how the state RECOMMENDS these be structured. Or, the fire departments could remain with the Cities, which could ask voters for a Levy Lid Lift to generate more revenue. More revenue for fire, more for police, and more for parks.

    Steven does not address the fact that this is the largest proposed increase in property levies (the fire benefit charge is technically not a "tax" but it comes on the property tax bill). People need to understand that this will cost them an additional $20 to $50 per month on their housing payments, whether they are homeowners or renters.

    Tuesday, December 20, 2022 Report this

  • TonyW33

    I have tracked this discussion for a good while and agree whole heartedly with Jim Lazar. It is not a question of whether or not the change in emergency services is rational but whether the FBC is equitable. Noted that it isn't and cannot be as written. No one will vote for this kind of boondoggle if they are adequately informed. It is disappointing to hear from the vested interests only presenting a partial picture while trying to take an outsized portion of the average person's monthly housing cost.

    Tuesday, December 20, 2022 Report this

  • sunshine39

    It makes no sense to pay higher taxes for the Fire Dept., but get NO MORE equipment or firefighters.

    Where would those tax dollars go? Do buildings equal better fire and emergency protection?

    A Levy lid lift for the Fire Dept. would be well supported by the public. No mystery formulas

    or hard to understand ratios.

    Thursday, April 20, 2023 Report this