Eastside Fire & Rescue closed station, cut staff in Issaquah

January 8, 2013

By Caleb Heeringa

Eastside Fire & Rescue closed a fire station in Issaquah on Dec. 19 and reduced staff at another Issaquah fire station Dec. 14 as the agency’s overtime budget ran low.

The agency closed a Sammamish fire station Dec. 16 for the same reason.

Officials closed Station 72, 1575 N.W. Maple St., from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Dec. 19 and reduced the staff at Station 71, 190 E. Sunset Way, to two firefighters from the typical three, for six hours Dec. 14. The agency also shut down Station 81, 2030 212th Ave. S.E., from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Dec. 16.

The closures and staffing reductions have become something of a holiday tradition at EFR. In recent years, the agency’s overtime budget has become a lightning rod and a target for partners seeking to tighten the belt on personnel costs.

“We’re trying to make the administration and union aware that this is not a fund they can keep coming to,” EFR board member and Sammamish Mayor Tom Odell said.

No houses have burned down while the nearest station was closed. But the closures have been an issue of contention with the union representing the agency’s firefighters, which filed an unfair labor practice charge.

The agency’s administration has been in negotiations with the union over potential solutions, including more careful monitoring of vacation rules for firefighters, or giving Chief Lee Soptich more freedom to maneuver unspent funds to overtime.

The partners — Issaquah, North Bend, Sammamish and fire districts 10 and 38 — granted those powers in September, and Soptich said he was hopeful the extra $50,000 or so in unspent money could prevent closures this year. But a couple of firefighters filing for long-term disability or family medical leave, and an untimely cold going around fire stations, complicated matters.

“The flu went through here like a bandit — we got hit real hard,” Soptich said.

Jon Wiseman, firefighters union president, said he and other firefighters want to see a more permanent solution to the problem rather than scrambling and closing stations every November and December.

The agency sets its overtime budget every fall during budget negotiations for the following year.

Closures and understaffing “are a safety risk to citizens and firefighters,” Wiseman said.

The agency’s policy is to run one of its stations with two full-time firefighters compared to the typical three if one employee calls in sick. If the agency is understaffed by two positions, it will close a station and send the extra employee to a neighboring station.

Four stations — in the Issaquah Highlands, along Issaquah-Pine Lake Road Southeast, downtown North Bend and Carnation — are protected from staff reductions due to their high call volume, remoteness or important strategic locations. Closures rotate among the remaining stations.

Deputy Chief Greg Tryon said the administration looks at various factors when deciding whether to close a station or expend dwindling overtime dollars to bring an extra firefighter in, including upcoming weather that could cause an increase in car accidents or power outages, or extra holiday traffic on roads.

Wiseman said the agency is endangering people by closing stations.

“It’s scary to think what could happen if we get a big call when one of those stations are closed,” he said.

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