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West Sound Fire & Rescue forges ahead

By RACHEL BRANT

Staff writer

The West Sound Fire & Rescue (WSFR) planning committee and interested firefighters grilled Valley Regional Fire Authority (VRFA) Administrator Eric Robertson Tuesday afternoon.

The WSFR planning committee held its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday in Bremerton and the group of eight men and one woman, along with a roomful of firefighters listened intently as Robertson discussed VRFA.

The WSFR planning committee meets twice a month to discuss the feasibility of melding Central Kitsap Fire & Rescue (CKFR), Bremerton Fire Department (BFD) and South Kitsap Fire & Rescue (SKFR) into a regional fire authority to be called WSFR. The group learned all about one of the state’s only fire authorities in hopes of gaining some insight into how to form WSFR.

“I think it’s always helpful to look at the examples of others,” said Dave Fergus, CKFR fire commissioner and WSFR planning committee chairman. “It’s absolutely a part of the planning process. If we have the opportunity to learn from others we are certainly taking those opportunities.”

VRFA was officially established Jan. 1, 2007 and provides fire services to just less than 76,000 people in the communities of Algona, Auburn and Pacific. Planning for VRFA began in April 2006 and Algona, Auburn and Pacific residents passed the ballot, with 70 percent of the vote, in each community, in November of that same year.

VRFA operates on a $17 million budget with 2008 funding, as approved by voters, coming from two sources: property taxes and a fire benefit service charge. Property taxes will be collected at a rate of $1 per $1,000 of assessed property value on all taxable properties and the fire benefit service charge is based on square footage, occupancy type and the required fire protection resources for the structure. Only some fire districts charge a fire service benefit charge.

Robertson said Algona, Auburn and Pacific voters approved VRFA’s funding because they knew the creation of a fire authority meant the area would receive better fire services. One fire station in Pacific used to be only staffed during the day, but once VRFA took over, it is now manned 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, according to Robertson.

“They knew they had to step up because that freight train was coming (and if they didn’t) they were going to get left behind,” Robertson said. “People know who we are, know what we’re doing and support our continued growth.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, the WSFR planning committee discussed possible governance options for the possible fire authority in Kitsap County. VRFA’s governance board is comprised of the mayors of Algona, Auburn and Pacific as well as two city council members from each area, totaling nine elected officials.

“It’s more designed like a municipal government than a traditional fire department,” Robertson said. “From the standpoint of the firefighters, going on calls and such, there isn’t really a whole lot of change. Where the change is, is at the management level.”

Fergus said Robertson’s presentation helped show the planning committee that it is possible for WSFR to come to fruition and better serve the people of Central Kitsap, South Kitsap and Bremerton. He added that the planning committee will continue researching the best options for WSFR throughout this year and into 2009.

“There’s going to be a lot of challenges, bringing three organizations together,” Fergus said. “The belief is through combining resources we could run a more efficient organization.”

Robertson said he is pleased Kitsap County is looking at the possibility of creating a fire authority. He added that other fire departments should also look at the possibility.

“It’s worked well for us and it’s certainly something they should look at as an option,” Robertson said.

VRFA and Riverside Fire Authority in Centralia are currently the only two fire authorities in the state, but California, New Mexico, Utah and Oregon as well as Great Britain have fire authorities.

“It’s not uncommon outside of Washington,” Robertson said. “It’s not a super new concept, but it’s new to Washington state.”

Fergus said the WSFR planning committee’s tentative schedule predicts Central Kitsap, South Kitsap and city of Bremerton residents will vote on WSFR in November 2009. Pending voters’ approval, WSFR will be officially established Jan. 1, 2010.

“It’s working well here (VRFA) and with the process that they’re going through over there (Kitsap County) it should go well in Kitsap,” Robertson said.

The public is invited to attend the next WSFR planning committee meeting from 4 to 6 p.m. March 18, at the Kitsap Readiness Center in Bremerton. The meeting offers an opportunity for citizens’ comments at the end of every meeting.

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