By Tracy Record
White Center Now editor
While it’s still a year and a half until the earliest date that residents of unincorporated North Highline would vote on Seattle annexation, a deadline is near:
The North Highline Fire District Board of Commissioners has two weeks to write up its position on the proposed annexation for the King County Boundary Review Board, whose public hearing starts two weeks after that.
But first, the board wants to make sure it has all the information it needs to take a stand. Some of it came during an extensive Q&A during the board’s Monday night meeting, with Seattle city and King County reps in attendance, but the board also is awaiting written answers to some key questions. By meeting’s end, the Seattle reps promised to speed it up, though NHFD lawyer Brian Snure observed that it would have been better if this information had all been in months earlier.
No way to go back in time. So here’s what did happen Monday night.
Guests for the discussion, which took up most of the public portion of the meeting (which ended with a closed-door session), were Seattle’s longtime annexation point person Kenny Pittman, Seattle Fire Department Assistant Chief of Operations Jay Hagen, and Karen Freeman from the King County Executive’s Office.
Existing Seattle Fire stations are well positioned to cover the NH area, Chief Hagen said, meeting the 4-minute response standard. “We try to get a fire engine to the emergency alarm location within 4 minutes, 90 percent of the time.” So if NH Engine 18 is busy, what does that do to response times? It would go up to 5 minutes, 10 seconds, but that’s still better than the service SE Seattle gets, he said. “In all four corners of the city, the coverage would be better here than other areas of Seattle.”
Commissioner Liz Giba asked what response time meant. “First we have to process the call – CPT is time from when the phone rings at public-safety answering point, they process the call, look for a geocoded address on the map, match to computer on fire apparatus, and send alarm to the station. When bell rings at station, we end answering time and start turnout time – until the wheels roll over threshold of station door. Then we have response time, the actual driving time to the incident. … We would ask them to gear up quicker for an aid (medical) response than for a structure fire response – an extra 20 seconds or so, about 80 seconds.”
That’s engine response, he explained. For ladder-truck response – West Seattle has only one, Ladder 11 at Station 32 in The Junction. But that’s about equidistant for what NH would get right now. “In a perfect world we’d like to rearrange things and have a ladder truck closer. … Those are the longer apparatus and the (ones) we use in Seattle are tillered, with asteering wheel on the back set of wheels … they do search and rescue, forcible entry, ventilation … they’re dedicated to certain functions on the fire ground. In Seattle we have about a 3 to 1 ratio, engines to ladders. If annexation occurs, the engine here would be the 34th engine in Seattle, and we have 11 ladder trucks spread around the city.”
SFD has a 4-platoon system, 4 groups of firefighters who relieve each other sequentially, while NH has a three-platoon system. sends two battalion chiefs to structure fires for command and control – “they’re the ones you might see with radios giving orders, or they might join firefighters inside the structure.” Then there’s Deputy 1 who has command over the entire city. All companies are staffed with four personnel at all times.
Medic unit coverage: Seattle has BLS (basic life support) – the EMT level of care, closest to the alarm location and they can get there and decide whether ALS (advanced life support) is needed or can they handle it on their own? “They pave the way to success by doing things (to prepare for) the ALS unit.” All Seattle firefighters are EMTs. The paramedics in King County, meantime, “all come from the same school … all highly regarded.” Last year, he said, they had a 62.5% cardiac-arrest survival rate. They get international visitors – one from the UK, for example, said that where he was from, they had a 12 percent survival rate. SFD is the “rolling classroom for Medic One.” He says they already provide a good level of service for ALS. But – Medic 4, he noted, is moving to downtown Burien this summer, close to NH. Seattle’s Medic 32 is at Station 37 (West Seattle’s southernmost station) during the rebuild of Station 32. “The honest truth is, when we go back to our normal condition, the medic unit is not as close as the (one) that serves this area – we’d have to do some work to make that an improvement.” They don’t have plans “developed” yet.
In response to Giba’s question, Hagen noted that the new Station 32 in the West Seattle Junction will be finished in about a year. He also noted that this area is “rich in need” – 1,000 ALS alarm in the past year. If you carved the same acreage from, say, West Seattle’s Admiral District, he said, that only generated 209 alarms in the past year.
Hagen said he thinks “there’s a great company here … at face value, not a lot would change. What’s notable to me is the depth and breadth of services that the city of Seattle could bring to bear … larger organization, more follow-on services, I think that would be noteworthy.” Comissioner Julie Hiatt asked about follow-on examples. “Technical rescue services, like trench rescue,” Hagen began. (A unit is positioned in SODO, 4th and Horton.)
North Highline (and Burien) Chief Mike Marrs said those services are provided through Zone 3 responses, any station out of King County. It would come out of on-duty firefighters as opposed to specialty crew members who are always on.
What if the specialists are busy? Giba asked. If it’s going to be more than 2 hours before they are, they have callbacks to bring personnel in. “Every Seattle firefighter is trained to the awareness of (assessing) operational level,” he said, how to call for additional resources, for example. They also could call for mutual aid if need be, Hagen said – Seattle is zone 5, South/West suburbs are zone 3.
Hiatt asked for an example. So Hagen spelled out a trench-rescue scenario, a “low priority, high impact, high risk type of emergency” that might happen every six weeks or so. If one is already in progress and a second one is called, the first-arriving firefighters know what to do – to stabilize the situation, waiting for more advanced resources to arrive. “Chances are we might do more than one of those things at once, reinstate our backup team AND call for mutual aid.”
Pittman then spoke. He said the average tax bill would go down in NH if annexed. Seattle “really does have a low tax rate because we have a huge assessed value and state law limits how much (they can charge). … Residents in this area are affected by special-purpose districts, and NHFD is a special-purpose district. If annexed … the only thing that would exist for Highline is if they passed a bond that would stay with property owners until paid off.”
“How about financing for the fire services?” Pittman’s reply: The city budgets overall for everything.
He mentioned the state sales tax that would be partly funneled to Seattle – $7.75 million a year for a 6-year period, while the previous version was $5 million for 10 years – without costing anyone anything more.
His spreadsheet showed that annual taxes on an average NH property would go down about $200 a year – dropping from $3,239 to $3,011.
Asked about the recently passed Move Seattle transportation levy, Pittman replied incorrectly that it wasn’t a property tax – but it is (“The $930 million levy will be paid for through a property tax that will cost the median Seattle household (valued at $450,000) about $275 per year, for nine years.”)
He was asked about school districts. This area would remain in the Highline Public Schools system unless something happened to change that in the future. The school districts would have to go to the Educational Service District to ake a change – “there are no plans to do that, and no discussions to my knowledge (about that).”
Back to fire-related matters. He mentioned that firefighters would retain their seniority and benefits – “the two unions would have some discussion among themselves” about who goes where,” and the Fire Departments also would have some details to work out, if there were any layoffs. But again, they’d need more firefighters than they have now. What about administrative staff? “We’re looking into that,” said Pittman.
What about rank? asked Giba. Pittman said that people would be evaluated on an individual basis to see if they met the qualifications for the Seattle version of the title they hold in NH. Hagen elaborated, “I called the president of Local 27 this morning, Kenny Stewart, to say we’d be having some of these discussions – he’s in pretty close communication with NH leadership, some of this stuff hasn’t been worked out yet.” They’d look at resumes, training, etc. Hiatt wondered if there are set criteria for evaluation. Local 27 VP Jeff Miller was in the room and said “That all gets worked out in union negotiations … as a union we wouldn’t be doing any evaluating but we’d be advocating for people to keep their seniority,” etc.
“It’s a pretty well-documented body of knowledge,” Hagen added.
Hiatt asked him for elaboration on administrative staff.
“They’re not necessarily at the fire stations – we have them at the training facility, Harborview, headquarters – I’m going to guess we have in the 50s, admin employees who are in Local 17.” Hagen said he couldn’t commit to what the situation would be under annexation – there’s one administrative staffer at the NHFD HQ – “I think we’d find a place for that person to go.”
What changes would people see in this building?
Pittman didn’t think many, but acknowledged that the building is used a lot for community meetings, so that would be worked out. The vehicles would be the biggest change.
No plans for station relocation? asked commissioner Dominic Barrera.
“Not at this time,” said Pittman. If there was a need to relocate the building, he added, it would probably be a little further north and east, “but there are no plans for that, let me be real clear.”
The real question, he said, is whether the plans would continue for a station in the potentially to-be-annexed area, “and there are no plans to have no station here” – he pointed out that this station would help service parts of West Seattle too.
“Is there any way you can give us an assurance there will always be a station in area Y?” asked Hiatt.
“An iron-clad guarantee? … It wouldn’t make sense to not have one in this area,” said Hagen.
“But it doesn’t make sense to not have one in Arbor Heights,” Hiatt pressed (an area annexed to Seattle in xxx). “… We wouldn’t want to be Arbor Heights.”
What about mutual-aid agreements if north Burien suddenly was without the NH fire station? Seattle already has several, said Hagen.
Do you feel a responsibility to north Burien? pressed Hiatt, saying it would leave “a hole.”
The Boundary Review Board would look at “doing no harm,” replied Pittman. He also said he had been “having conversations with Chief (Mike) Marrs … we take it very seriously.”
Hagen mentioned Seattle’s remodeling of fire stations – 30 of 33 done – “we would be making (upgrades) to this station,” including a decontamination area. “We’ve made a commitment to storing our protetive ensemble in a cimte-clintrolled system … with airflow through … the gear degrades a lot more quickly if we don’t take care of it. So we’ve made a commitment to appropriate gear storage facilities.” He said they also are committed to seat belts, strapping things down in cabs, cancer and heart attack. They also have put a functional gym system in every fire station, for health and wellness. They have facilities to capture the “diesel soot” as engines come in and out. “And on sleeping arrangements, we have gone to 1 person per room.”
Mutual aid is not automatic right now for Seattle, Hagen acknowledged, but it could be.
That surfaced concerns about North Burien losing coverage if the remaining portion of North Highline became part of Seattle. So – How would Burien get pre-approved for (automatic) Seattle mutual aid? Hagen said the county’s 50 fire chiefs meet regularly, and Seattle’s new Chief Harold Scoggins “is very comfortable operating in that environment … I see it as a trend we’re moving toward in this county.”
“Wouldn’t being the closest to Arbor Heights put an additional strain on this station?” asked Barbara Dobkin of the North Highline Unincorporated Area Council.
Hagen pointed out that “if we remove the political boundary,” then Engine 26 (South Park) and Engine 11 (Highland Park) would take part of what’s currently the North Highline area, so this station wouldn’t necessarily be serving everything it does AND more.
Pittman then picked up the timeline. The Boundary Review Board takes this up in June. Either a November 2017 or November 2018 election could follow. The former would result in annexation taking effect in January 2019, after a “full-blown budget process with the City Council.” Or, if a 2018 vote, then it would take effect in January 2020. “So there’s time to work out these issues.”
“So shouldn’t people have answers to these questions before they vote?” asked Giba.
Yes, and that’s what they’re working on now, said Hagen and Pittman. Two to three weeks away.
“We have to take a position and develop a brief on annexation and whether we support it by May 27th,” before the Boundary Review Board meeting, said the NHFD board’s lawyer. Without all the answers, it would be difficult for them to support it. So, the lawyer said, why do you have to have a Boundary Review Board hearing this soon for a November 2017 annexation vote?
Because they already asked for a one-year extension,and the main issue – the tax credit – has been addressed, Pittman said.
Anything you’d like to add? Giba asked Freeman.
No, she replied, but she’d answer questions.
First question – is King County financially assisting any government over these annexed areas? No, she said. Part of why we’re supporting annexations is because we (are low on money).
What about finding North Burien a place to build a fire station? Freeman recapped some past discussions including “an agreement that sunsetted in 2012” – the year by which the county had envisioned all the annexations would be complete. “We’re well past that date and we’re not done.” Three “islands” are claimed by Renton, there’s one outside Federal Way, there’s this one, and “63 smaller islands” elsewhere in the county.
“So you’re not going to find a parcel for North Burien (fire station) if the annexation goes through?” Hiatt asked.
“That’s correct,” said Freeman.
What would happen to the community if annexation was voted in, before it took effect? Dobkin asked.
We’d continue to serve it as best we can, said Freeman, adding that the county is looking at a “significant budget shortfall” in the next biennium. And “service continues to degrade.”
Pittman pointed out that it would only be a year between the vote and annexation taking effect.
Hiatt wondered if medic mutual aid could be available out of Burien, expressing concern that there’s just one unit in WS and it’s a ways away. “There’s a couple options” said Hagen – “one would be to make an arrangement with Medic 4 to provide that service in this area, the existing medic unit in West Seattle could be relocated further south …” Currently, they don’t call for mutual aid until everyone’s tied up, but that could change, Hagen said. “…I can tell you your concern is heard.” But, “There’s really no good reason we don’t have automatic aid right now … we can give easier than we can get … most of the time.”
Pat Price from NHUAC asked about timetable for the Duwamish annexation and how that’s affecting NHFD. “We’re still working through the interlocal agreement with King County … still looking at (possibly) putting it on November ballot this year, and it would take effect in 2018.”
Chief Hagen committed to getting answers to the e-mailed questions as soon as possible – even if partial, Hiatt stressed and he agreed to that.