At the quarterly meeting for the Lewis County Fire Commissioners Association, which includes representatives from every fire district in the county, the casual, wholesome feel of the night is reflected well by agenda line item E: “Thank the hosts for dinner.”
The meetings shift between various stations in Lewis County throughout the year, but the round of applause for the station’s cooks or caterers is sure to be remembered. The most recent meeting was held Monday, Nov. 21.
After a leisurely dinner of brisket, prime rib, potatoes and other sides last week in Mossyrock’s fire station thanks to a catering business owned by Uncle Jim’s Smokehouse and the owners of the Adna Grocery Store, the room full of elected officials, volunteers, career firefighters and their guests sounded off.
As the county has 17 different fire districts, the meeting gives guests a chance to report on issues they’re facing and community service opportunities while breaking bread with the responders they typically only see on the scenes of fires or accidents.
Typically, according to Lewis County Fire District 3 Commissioner Marty Majors, the meeting includes Lewis County’s fire marshal, county manager and representatives from the sheriff’s office, who were all absent Monday. But representatives from the Board of County Commissioners, various fire districts and the Lewis County Fire Chief’s Association were present.
The meetings are a roundtable review of projects that affect the entire county, such as updates on the county’s 911 call center, for which improvement funding has been set aside.
Majors described responding to calls along every 250 feet of U.S. Highway 12 that spans his fire district during his decades of service, recalling occasions where he “literally had to run up the hill” away from scenes to use his radio to call in help.
While the call center didn’t make the cut for focus topic of the night, it fell in the same category. Commissioners and fire chiefs, especially Riverside Fire Authority’s Chief Mike Kytta spoke to the worry that there isn’t enough money to support fire and emergency services necessary in fast-growing Lewis County. The problem regionally was evidenced by several station closures announced by West Thurston Fire Authority last week after levy failures.
Kytta said Riverside Fire Authority, which is the county’s leading emergency response entity, often encounters people with the misunderstanding that when property taxes go up, the department’s budget automatically rises too. But no fire stations can collect more money without levies.
“When we did the budget, we came in somewhere under $60,000 of revenue,” Kytta said. “That doesn’t even keep up with any of the basic elements of inflation that are going to occur, but I feel the average citizen is going to look at that (recent assessment of property values) and think somehow that we just got rich.”
An upcoming edition of The Chronicle this week will include a more detailed story on levies and property taxes after a conversation with Kytta and a representative from the Fire Chief's Association.
Another topic of discussion during last week’s meeting was a brainstorming session on programs that would benefit the community. Riverside Fire Commissioner and former chief Richard Mack said the best kind of fire service is preventative, not reactive. Promoting timely updates on smoke detectors, he said, would be valuable. He suggested that with some association funding, firetrucks throughout Lewis County could be stocked with smoke detectors so that responding firefighters could install them in homes where detectors are missing or batteries are dead.
“What are the two things that rural districts struggle with? Early CPR and early fire prevention,” said association President Jim Martin, who serves as a commissioner for Lewis County Fire District 6.
Martin added that in his opinion, Mack’s idea on smoke detectors aligned perfectly with the goals of the association and its efforts to support local services.
The next Lewis County Fire Chiefs Association meeting will be held on Feb. 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Lewis County Fire District 1 station in Onalaska.
When it was noted that the meeting would be taking place on Presidents Day, one attendee noted “Fire and EMS is 24/7,” which was met with many nods, and calls of “that’s right.”