Graham Fire set to boost staffing after voters approve levy

Graham Fire & Rescue announced an “aggressive hiring plan” Monday that will boost staffing and reopen three stations that were partially or fully closed due to earlier cutbacks.

Fire Chief Ryan Baskett said the district’s daily staffing will increase from nine to 11 responders after Jan. 1, and a first wave of newly hired firefighters and paramedics will be assigned shifts starting in March.

Ten new hires are expected to start working by June 1, Baskett said. By January 2016, a total of 16 full-time responder positions will be filled.

In addition to hiring responders, the fire district will use the revenue to purchase a new medic unit, begin funding deferred equipment replacement, improve training, support public education and begin replenishing the depleted reserve fund, according to a news release.

The service improvements come after voters on Nov. 4 approved a $2.75 million maintenance and operations levy. Higher-than-expected property values mean taxpayers will pay the district 54 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value, less than the 60 cents per $1,000 that officials projected before the general election.

Baskett said he was pleased to announce the hiring plan after the fire district was forced to make hard decisions in September after voters in August rejected an $11 million levy.

The cuts included daily staffing reductions and fewer daily paramedic units. The fire district also closed Fire Station 96 (Thrift), which was infrequently staffed, and instituted part-time closures of Station 95 (Frederickson) and Station 93 (Benston).

Other changes included eliminating support for school and public events and responses to burn complaints and non-hazardous calls, among other cutbacks.

The changes affected response times, but Baskett said they should recover as soon as the additional responders start work.

“We’re moving as quickly as we can to get the stations opened up and the additional people on the street,” he said Monday.

Graham Fire’s good fortune stands in contrast with another suburban fire district, East Pierce Fire & Rescue, which is planning drastic cuts in 2015 after its fire levy failed to earn supermajority support in the November election. East Pierce plans reductions in overtime and daily staffing; deferred purchase of equipment; and reduced maintenance of stations, fire engines and medic units, among other cuts.

Graham Fire serves about 61,000 residents in an area spanning from Lake Kapowsin to Frederickson. It has six fire stations, including the three subject to the recent closures.

As property values have dropped, annual calls for service have increased by about 17 percent. Baskett anticipates district staff will have responded to about 6,000 calls by the end of 2014.

Last weekend was an especially busy one, Baskett said. Firefighters responded to two major fires simultaneously, requiring mutual aidfrom other agencies; 22 calls came in on Saturday alone, he said.

“It just reinforces that we were trying to do a lot with very little,” Baskett said.

Graham Fire has struggled since its revenue peaked in 2008. The recession led to decreased property values and an annual budget reduction of about $2.5 million.

The fire district has avoided layoffs by leaving vacant positions unfilled, making cuts to training and reorganizing department administration.

Last summer, the district's 65 employees took a 5 percent cut in compensation to avoid nine layoffs. Those changes were made after the fire district negotiated buyout packages — valued at more than $592,000 — for three employees.