New firefighters ready to staff reopened Lacey Station 35

Federal grant revives Willamette Drive station, which has been out of commission for 14 months

Staff writerJune 16, 2013 

A Lacey fire station left dark for more than a year is set to reopen this month, meaning faster response times for those living in the Hawks Prairie community.

The restaffing of Station 35 off Willamette Drive was made possible with a $2.5 million federal grant that provides funding to hire 12 additional firefighters.

The catch is that the grant lasts only two years, and until a funding source is found, the 8-year-old fire station could close a third time.

In November 2008, fire commissioners voted to close the station because of budget cuts. In May 2009, Lacey Fire District 3 reached an agreement with the city to reopen the station.

It closed again in April 2012, after voters rejected a levy lid lift the previous year. Without that extra funding, the district was unable to keep the station open.

The station has had the lowest call volume of the district’s stations — about 5 percent of the district’s total annual calls, which is about 11,500 incidents. The headquarters off Franz Street averages about 40 percent of the total call volume, the highest in the district.

The closure caused concern for those living around the station, which includes several 55-and-older communities such as Jubilee.

“There was a lot of dismay when it closed again,” said Barbara Sovde, a member of the Jubilee Community Association board of directors. “It was open maybe two years, then closed again, then reopened. It’s been such an up and down — we want some stability.”

The station’s grand reopening is set for 1-4 p.m. June 29.

The reopening elicits a sigh of relief from the 1,100 Jubilee residents, even if it might be temporary.

“It gives people such a peace of mind to know there is someone nearby,” Sovde said.

Without the Willamette Drive station, the Steilacoom Road station — 4 miles away, or a 10-minute drive to the south — became the closest to respond to the area’s calls, increasing the average response time by almost two minutes, according to Lacey Fire District 3 Chief Steve Brooks.

For more outlying areas, response time increased by as much as 10 minutes.

During the 14 months the station was closed, about 625 calls were added to the load of the neighboring stations.

Having the Willamette station open means another full engine crew of three around the clock, making for better response times and lessening the call volume for the stations.

Brooks said the district’s board is looking at options to fund the new staff in the future and keep the station open after the grant expires.

“We don’t want to be reliant solely on grants,” Brooks said.

The options include levy lid lifts, fees for service and applying for future grants.

Levy lid lifts require voter approval. The district hasn’t had a levy lid lift approved since 2004. The district also could look to an excess levy, which would require a supermajority of voter approval.

The board is also looking to create a citizen board to gauge how the community feels and if additional options can be found, Brooks said.

Sovde said residents in her area already have shown support for a levy lid lift, and she plans to help spread the word any way she can.

“People need to realize how important it is,” Sovde said. “Nobody wants new taxes obviously, but it’s a matter of educating.”

Before completely focusing on funding sources, the board had to get the 12 new personnel trained and on active duty.

Ordinarily, firefighters are sent to the state academy in North Bend, but because of the number of positions needed and the time frame, the state agreed to work with the fire district, which held an in-house academy for the first time.

Classroom work was completed at the Willamette station, and most of the live fire scenarios were perfected at the Mark Noble Regional Fire Training Center off Fones Road.

Lacey Fire Lt. Ryan Cox was the lead on the program’s training, which was “coordination intensive.” The recruits were trained by Cox, as well as state-certified trainers who came down from the North Bend academy for specific skills.

“The benefit of it is, during the entire academy we can focus it toward the way we operate,” Cox said. “At the state academy, they teach X, Y and Z, and spend more time on different things that may or may not get discarded when (the firefighters) go back to their agencies.”

Unlike the North Bend academy, where recruits are required to live on campus during the week, the Lacey firefighters could go home at the end of each training day.

Some who lived farther out opted to live out of the Willamette station during training weeks.

The crew trained four days per week for 10 hours a day.

Eleven of the 12 recruits made it to their graduation day Saturday — among them a returning firefighter and mother of three, a school teacher and father of four, and a sibling of nine.

There also is a former college football player who changed paths and went on to pitch in the Seattle Mariners organization.

“From the time I was 16, that’s all I ever wanted to do was play football,” firefighter Johnny DuRocher said. “I never thought about getting a job — a real job.”

As a quarterback for the University of Washington, he was well on his way to his dream until he got hurt during a 2006 game against Stanford.

Doctors examining a concussion discovered a benign brain tumor, and for that moment, DuRocher’s football career was over.

After surgery, DuRocher walked onto the college baseball team. In 2007, the Mariners selected him in the 34th round of the Major League Baseball first-year draft. He played on the organization’s Arizona League and Single-A teams before having to put the glove away for good after his elbow was injured.

Unable to pitch but still able to toss a football, DuRocher gave his teenage dream one last try at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, but he was hurt again in a matter of weeks.

DuRocher decided to try coaching, overseeing young athletes at Central, as well as at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He returned to the Pacific Northwest in 2010 to work in construction, where his future took a new turn after meeting a co-worker and Tacoma firefighter.

“He told me, ‘You will love it,’” DuRocher said.

DuRocher tested and eventually became a volunteer with the Lacey Fire District.

The career had everything he missed about playing football: the competitiveness, team bonding and a reason to stay in shape.

“It’s important and a well-respected career,” DuRocher said. “That’s what everybody wants in the first place — to get a well-respected career. For me, it was a thing I should have tried earlier.”

Firefighter Keri Hall already had a taste of firefighting, but she put her career on hold to care for her three children.

Firefighting is part of the Hall family: Her husband works for the Olympia Fire Department, and her father was a county firefighter.

After spending the past two years as a volunteer firefighter with Lacey and volunteering with McLane Black Lake before that, Hall looks forward to the second first day of her career.

Hall and DuRocher appreciated the style of training they received during the in-house academy.

“It was a new experience for everybody — the fire department and recruits,” Hall said. “We were working together to make it happen … We go in as individuals and really come out as the Lacey Fire Department.”

The department is in the process of hiring the final recruit needed to fully operate the district stations. That recruit will go to the North Bend academy in early August.

Some of the new firefighters start work Sunday, based at other stations for the first two weeks. They’ll spend a quarter of their first year on the job at the Willamette Drive station, the rest of the year at one of the busier stations.

New firefighters are on probation for their first year. The clock began as soon as they were hired.

Open house

The Willamette Station, at 3701 Willamette Drive in Lacey, will have an open house from 1 p.m.-4 p.m. June 29.

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