The coverage area for the North Highline Fire Department is 3.5 square miles, a far cry from it's 9 mile coverage area in the 1940s. District #11 is now struggling to provide service due to a lack of funding.
North Highline firefighters battling budgets
When the North Highline Fire District #11 was formed in the 1940’s, it was an all-volunteer unit covering nine square miles. Through annexation and incorporation from that time up to now, the district has been whittled down to 3.5 square miles of coverage.
“This district has shrunk so much in size that we are really struggling up here to continue to provide that service … there have been cuts and cuts and cuts over the years. We fund two three-person engine companies … and that’s it,” Burien and North Highline Fire Chief Mike Marrs explained at a recent North Highline Unincorporated Area Council meeting. Marrs has been chief at District #2 in Burien for 13 years, and took over the leadership role of #11 just over a year ago.
As mentioned in Marrs’ quote, District #11 has two fire trucks to cover the area and no aid car (ambulance). The nearest King County Medic One ambulance is in SeaTac.
In the coming months the District #11 Board, along with Marrs, will be evaluating different revenue models to bring in more funding in an attempt to ensure continued fire service for the area. Currently, according to Marrs, the service is funded primarily by property taxes at a rate of $1.50 per $1,000 assessed value (for a $200,000 home, that comes out to $300 a year). There is a complex web of additional sources, including partial funding from the King County Medic One Levy and various grants.
Marrs said the problem in North Highline is three-fold: the district has shrunk over time, leading to less property tax revenue. Of the property still within the district, a poor housing economy has hurt the value and led to less funding. North Highline is also home to several subsided housing units (20 percent of property in North Highline), which are often times tax-exempt, including King County Housing Authority operations.
Property values are on the rebound, which Marrs said will help, but maintaining current levels of service will require more so that the district doesn’t have to revert to a partial volunteer basis in 2014 and beyond. He said there are two options on the table: ask voters to approve “excess levy” funds in November (up to 30 cents more per $1,000 assessed value) or institute a benefit charge. Marrs explained the benefit charge as a way to charge tax-exempt housing for service. Instead of property taxes, a “complicated formula” based on size, fire exposure (his example was a warehouse full of flammable chemicals would be charged more), and other factors. That is another option voters may see on their November ballot.
A closer look at Fire District #11 operations
As part of his presentation to NHUAC, Marrs took a moment to explain what his firefighters do in a typical year.
In 2012, District #11 firefighters responded to 123 structure fires in North Highline, making up a paltry three percent of their calls. Coming in at 3819, aid calls running “the whole gamut of medical problems that people have,” make up 83 percent. The remaining calls consisted of water rescue, hazardous material, and other miscellaneous need.
Firefighters are trained to do basic life support, and in many cases that’s all that’s needed (a cut finger, for example), but in cases where someone is experiencing a heart attack or serious injuries they call in a Medic One unit for more advanced life support. Marrs said resources can get stretched very thin and response times can suffer greatly when there is more than one call going out at any time.
“You don’t know, when you come to work, what you might be faced with on a given day,” he said.
Additionally, Marrs said the main distinction between a “fire district” and “fire department” is that districts depend on property taxes for funding while departments are part of city government, and are part of that municipality’s overall budget.
When major emergencies arise, including two- and three-alarm fires, Marrs said the districts and departments throughout King County have agreements to help each other out.
While the closest Medic One paramedic is currently in SeaTac, Marrs said he is lobbying to have the unit moved to Burien when their new fire stations are complete. He said 60 to 70 percent of calls they respond to are in Burien or North Highline, acting as his main justification.
“That will dramatically improve response time in this area,” he said.