By John Owen
Volunteer firefighting is a huge commitment that takes many of us away from our families to help our community. These volunteers are committed to providing professional emergency response services for our community, and keeping our fellow volunteers safe during calls. This becomes difficult when we have to work in an unsafe operating environment, like the current Winthrop fire station.
Okanogan County Fire District 6 volunteer firefighters respond to a wide variety of emergency calls — wildfires, structure fires, carbon monoxide and fire alarms, downed power lines, motorcycle accidents, traffic control, assisting Aero Methow Rescue Service with heavy lifting situations, and rescuing people and pets trapped in vehicles.
The variety of skills and knowledge each volunteer needs to respond to any of these situations is learned in recruit and firefighter school and ongoing weekly drills. To qualify as a district firefighter requires more than 350 hours of training, plus over 144 hours of weekly drills each year. Most people are surprised when they learn the extent of our training, and the fact that we are on call all day, every day of the year. A district volunteer firefighter spends on average 90 hours per year responding to calls with some volunteers logging over 240 hours per year.
Firefighting is dangerous and difficult work and the crowded quarters at the Winthrop station unnecessarily add to that danger. Inadequate storage room for equipment and inadequate clearance around engines make this station an unsafe working environment for the volunteers and a liability to the district taxpayers. Poor clearance around the engines makes it impossible for drivers to see around the equipment before moving out, which puts personnel at risk.
State and national standards require three feet of clearance around a vehicle. At the Winthrop station, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries found six instances where clearance is less than half that. In three places, there is less than three inches. There are less than 24 inches between firefighters scrambling to change into gear for a call and a moving 50,000-pound engine. It’s dangerous — and only a matter of time before a severe accident happens.
Over 90 percent of our first responders are volunteers. Their contribution saves district taxpayers $2.3 million per year in full-time personnel costs. Unsafe working conditions at the Winthrop station are impacting our ability to attract and keep volunteers. Participation in Winthrop has declined from a high of 21 volunteers in 2007 to just 11 at the start of 2014. Eleven volunteers is not adequate coverage for our community, or to keep our volunteers safe on calls. There should be a minimum of 25 volunteers operating out of the Winthrop station but there is no safe space for them to dress or hang their gear.
The Winthrop station receives more emergency calls than any other station in the district. That’s because its volunteers respond to all emergency calls that come into Twisp and Mazama, and 60 percent of Carlton’s calls. During the Gold Creek fire in 2011, nine Winthrop volunteers logged 375 hours at the incident — more than any other district station.
District 6 volunteers have communicated our safety concerns to the Board of Fire Commissioners and they have been supportive. The current building and site are too small to expand, so the district purchased land for a new station along Lower Horizon Flats Road. In the fall of 2014, the district will ask voters to approve a levy lid lift to build a new district station in Winthrop.
The communities we serve could not afford to operate without a strong volunteer organization. To attract and retain volunteers, we need adequate, safe facilities in which they can operate. Please help us by learning more about the new station and supporting the ballot measure in November. If you would like to visit the Winthrop station and get an on-site understanding of the issues, please contact me at 996-3656.
John Owen has been a district volunteer firefighter for seven years, is the Winthrop station captain and is president of the Winthrop FireFighters Association, which represents volunteers throughout Okanogan County Fire District 6.