Central, South Pierce fire districts lobbying for repair funds

The two districts say bonds totaling $47 million would improve response times and facilities at aging stations

Staff writerOctober 10, 2013 

Firefighters say their living quarters at two station houses near Eatonville and Roy are crammed and old, a jumble of disjointed floor plans.

At the Roy station, curtains replace doors in sleeping areas shared by male and female volunteers and career firefighters. There are lots of bugs and a lingering smell of mold.

“The living arrangements are pretty bad,” said Joe Arena, a volunteer firefighter and EMT for South Pierce Fire & Rescue.

His district is one of two in Pierce County asking voters this fall for a combined $47 million for new and improved fire stations. Together, the two districts serve more than 220,000 residents stretching from Eatonville to Puyallup.

Central Pierce Fire & Rescue, one of the state’s biggest fire districts, covers a diverse population of rural, suburban, urban and commercial areas.

It’s asking for a $39.8 million bond to replace three stations — including one that shares space with Puyallup police — and to remodel or upgrade several others.

South Pierce, which serves rural areas reaching to the Mount Rainier foothills, is requesting $7.6 million to build a new headquarters and remodel two buildings. The bond would address living conditions and the structural integrity of seven stations.

But the money is not just about making fire stations more comfortable for the people who live and work there. Officials in both districts say the measures on the Nov. 5 ballot would put emergency resources in the right places, improve response times and ensure the safety of citizens.

No statements were submitted in the voter guide arguing against the measures.

CENTRAL PIERCE

Central Pierce Fire Chief Keith Wright says now is the time to pay for new stations in the district. The current effort comes five years after voters rejected a $36 million proposal.

With construction costs down, Wright doesn’t want to wait any longer. Problems include cramped quarters, leaky roofs with mold problems and outdated emergency generators.

At a cost of about 16 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation, Central Pierce’s bond measure would cost the owner of a $225,000 home an estimated $36 a year.

Approval of the bond measure would pay for three new station buildings — downtown Puyallup, Parkland and Midland — and major structural improvements to the Spanaway/Frederickson and South Hill stations. Smaller improvements would be made to the remaining eight stations.

Puyallup police officers are just as eager for a new fire station downtown.

Police spokesman Scott Engle said the city is working to improve all its safety facilities, and the fire station is the first piece of the puzzle.

“We are completely maxed out on space,” he said. “We have no more room, quite frankly, for anything.”

Wright said the projects collectively will improve the long-term health of the district, which responds to roughly 27,000 calls a year over an 87-square-mile area.

“The citizens will benefit from having all 12 stations in shape,” he said.

Central Pierce has continued to grow since it formed in 1996. It most recently merged with Puyallup’s Fire Department in 2008, which added 40,000 people to its boundaries.

But as the district has expanded, its funds have shrunk; its current operating budget of about $42.3 million has declined by nearly $5.5 million since 2010.

Wright said the district now serves just as many people as Tacoma Fire Department but with half the staff and resources.

Wright said a new Parkland station — the busiest in the district — would be built on a bigger land parcel to accommodate its high volume of calls.

The Midland station has undergone several remodels, mostly short-term fixes to a building that doesn’t comply with building codes. The new station would be built closer to Portland Avenue, a main arterial, to improve response times.

If the bond is approved in November, Wright said projects would begin right away and would be completed no later than 2019.

“We will build buildings that will last 40 to 50 years,” he said.

SOUTH PIERCE

South Pierce Fire Chief Bob Vellias said the district is rapidly growing and his stations are bursting at the seams.

Though it serves about a tenth as many people as Central Pierce, residents in South Pierce are spread out over 138 square miles. Vellias said the population grew 23 percent from 2000 to 2010, according to census data.

Vellias said many people don’t comprehend the growth since much of the district is hidden in wooded rural areas.

“It fools a lot of people,” he said.

South Pierce’s bond measure would cost property owners 35 cents per $1,000 assessed valuation, or about $70 per year for a $200,000 home.

It is the first bond effort since two longtime districts merged to form South Pierce in 2009.

Approval of the bond would allow for a new headquarters in a central location at state Route 702 and 40th Avenue South near McKenna, where the district owns a 5-acre parcel.

It would be twice the size of the current headquarters, a 4,700-square-foot building off state Route 7 and 340th Street East near Eatonville. An old cinder block garage, it was expanded to hold administrative staff and firefighters 24 hours a day.

That building has showers, living quarters and offices all within a 20-foot radius. Closets have been converted into work spaces. Only half the administrative staff has offices on site, and there’s a lack of storage.

“We’ve shoehorned and built these buildings to the max,” Vellias said.

The new headquarters location would also reduce the distance traveled to most calls and improve responders’ access to major arterials. Crews respond to about 2,300 calls a year.

Today, South Pierce’s two main stations are located on the extremes of the district’s boundaries, and responders must travel an average of 9 miles to a call. That average distance could be reduced significantly with the main station more centrally located, Vellias said.

Other projects would include remodeling the Roy and Northwest Trek stations and making smaller improvements to all seven stations.

Vellias said the new SR702 building and the Northwest Trek station remodel would be completed at the same time. The Roy station remodel would follow.

If the bond is approved, staff would likely move into the new headquarters roughly two years after passage.

If voters reject it, Vellias said his district will remain unprepared for a major disaster such as a flood or an earthquake.

He said he’s dedicated the $3.6 million operating budget — down 31 percent since 2008 — to building up resources and maximizing what the district already has.

“I’ve invested every dime we have into equipment and people,” he said. “We haven’t laid off any people. I think that says a lot for the department.”

Kari Plog: 253-597-8682
kari.plog@thenewstribune.com
@KariPlog

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