With 76 firefighters serving a population of 92,512, the Yakima Fire Department is almost the largest it has ever been. But it’s still smaller than many other departments in similar-size cities in Washington.
“We barely have enough people to put out a house fire,” Fire Chief Dave Willson said. “We don’t have enough people to put out a large fire like a warehouse fire.”
During a number of shifts last year, Willson had to cut the number of on-duty fire crews from six to five — leaving a total of 15 firefighters to cover the city.
The extra crew had been paid out of the department’s overtime budget, which the city had cut in order to avoid laying off any firefighters. So, for more than a quarter of the time last year, the department was down one crew, according to Willson.
The department automatically sends five three-person units to any structure fire. If a sixth crew isn’t on duty, there are effectively no other firefighters left to respond to another call.
“We send what we have, hit hard and hit it fast, and get them (the firefighters) back in service.”
Most fire calls don’t actually require all five crews, and they can be quickly released to respond to other calls. But when a building is engulfed in flames, the incident commander needs all five crews immediately to keep the flames from spreading to other buildings, he said.
So, what happens if two buildings catch on fire at the same time?
If there’s a sixth crew on shift, it responds to try to keep the flames in check. But if there’s no extra crew, the response could be delayed, Willson said.
Firefighters would either have to come from neighboring departments, off-duty personnel or be taken off the first fire.
So far, there hasn’t been two fires at the same time, he said.
Yakima isn’t unique in having to balance what it can afford and what firefighters would like to see. Yakima has far fewer firefighters per 1,000 residents than other fire departments in Washington serving similar populations.
But when the number of Yakima’s firefighters is compared to the assessed value of land in its jurisdiction, the city is actually above the median, according to the Yakima Herald-Republic’s analysis of fire department staffing levels.
The city has 0.82 firefighters per 1,000 residents, compared to the average of 1.18. However, the city has 1.37 firefighters per $100 million of assessed value compared to the average of 1.12, when contrasted with the 11 other roughly comparable cities examined for this report.
Two other Central Washington fire departments — Kennewick and Pasco — had ratios similar to Yakima.
“Is it ideal? No, nothing’s ideal in this day and age,” City Manager Tony O’Rourke said.
No solutions appear to be on the horizon, either.
City officials have dedicated what little extra money they could scrape together into long overdue road repairs and anti-gang efforts. They said they doubt Yakima residents would stomach a tax increase for more firefighters.
And a proposal to form a regional fire authority, which could levy taxes on its own, faces many obstacles, namely convincing voters to create a new taxing authority, Yakima City Councilman Rick Ensey said.
“Do we need more firefighters? Probably,” he said.
However, the city can’t afford to add them, said Ensey, who opposes forming a regional fire authority.
The City Council is scheduled to take a closer look at a regional fire authority during its Feb. 26 study session.
Jeremy Rodriguez, a Yakima firefighter and president of the firefighters union, said he doesn’t expect much from the city right now, but he does want the City Council to have some loose plan to bring staffing levels up in the future. “I haven’t seen that at this point in time,” he said.
Right now, “the economics aren’t there to support it. I don’t want to bankrupt the city. My guys don’t want to bankrupt the city.”
Yakima firefighters agreed to pay cuts in 2011, but they also got a 4 percent raise in 2012 and are getting a 1 percent raise this year, Rodriguez said.
The city and the firefighters union will likely start negotiating a new contract in August.