By Roy Reiber
Recent events have been very disappointing and I am deeply bothered by the apparent abuse the Okanogan County Fire District 5 commissioners have received. During my years as a firefighter, commissioner or both, I’ve seen many changes in District 6. Even 20 years ago the four stations operated with military surplus vehicles for tenders and brush rigs. Picture responding to a fire in an old two-and-a-half ton tender with a top speed on level road of around 45 miles per hour — and on a hill your passenger could easily jog alongside.
Over the years we got away from the old military vehicles and purchased real fire trucks. At first we bought used vehicles but lately our purchases have been new vehicles. The four stations have four structural engines, five tenders, two interface four-wheel drive engines, and four brush rigs. The district also responds with a city engine out of the Twisp and Winthrop stations. We also have a small emergency rig at Winthrop that carries extra gear like our haz-mat equipment to fill empty air bottles at fire scenes.
As training became better and the firefighters’ skills became more diverse, we have begun carrying more gear and filling our trucks. We have first-rate extrication equipment and carry low-angle and some high-angle rescue gear to reach and retrieve injured people who have gone over a bank. We have firefighters trained and equipped in water rescue and ice rescue.
As people join the ranks of firefighters, we train them to Firefighter 1 standards. They don’t drive until they qualify in emergency vehicle operation. They don’t enter a burning building until they have had live fire training and are proficient with air pack usage. All of the new capabilities are valuable but they require training equipment and space for the training. The lack of space is what started us on a quest for a new district fire hall in Winthrop.
Within the memories of some of our firefighters, the Winthrop hall was an unheated double garage that held two trucks. That structure has been increased by six times the original size to have four bays, a hose tower and a room for training. During my time with the district there have been two more additions to the building to give more space for another truck and training room. Still, there is not enough space.
Modern trucks are longer, taller and wider than the old vehicles we used. Taller doors won’t fit. There is absolute care in the winter that the snow in front of the doors is removed so trucks aren’t damaged leaving the hall. Fresh hose is loaded outside in rain or snow because firefighters can’t fit on the trucks inside to do the job. Certainly everyone has seen the pictures of our firefighters donning gear in the tight quarters beside the trucks. We need larger modern fire hall.
People have questioned the site we have chosen for the new fire hall. It is the best site we could find that we could afford and we think it will function. We need to be south of the steel bridge as a large percentage of our calls are in that direction. At our current site we travel through residential streets on every call and unless we go up East Chewuch Road we travel down a hill, usually through the four-way stop in the middle of Winthrop.
People have asked about the need for some of the space in the newly planned hall. We hope to have a structure that will serve District 6 for a long time and we haven’t added anything not found in a typical modern fire hall. The 50-person auditorium that concerns people is a training room to hold 50 firefighters for training.
Current training in the Winthrop hall has the room full of people and sitting on counters and leaning on the wall, and that is our biggest training room. The gym that has been questioned is a space on a loft above the bays used primarily for record storage, where firefighters have been told they can set up a weight room if they provide the equipment. The bunk rooms will probably be used by firefighters in situations such as approaching thunderstorms or when wildfires are rampant.
We have in the past had firefighters living in the station in Winthrop, Mazama and, I believe, Twisp. Current firefighters have said they would use the bunk rooms now in times of fire danger. It is very satisfying to get to the hall for a run and find the trucks running on the apron in front of the hall.
We tried to provide a means to build the new hall with the failed levy lid lift so we could continue quality service to the community. The vote was to give us money to work with and wasn’t — in our minds — an advisory vote. We have asked for bids and when we see projected costs we will try to use our current dollars to provide a new badly needed hall.
Roy Reiber is chairman of the Okanogan County Fire District 6 board of commissioners.