New fire station is sorely needed

The national gold standard for responding to fire calls is six minutes. It takes the Olympia Fire Department nearly twice as long to respond to fire and emergency medical calls in the city limits.

That's the reason city officials must aggressively pursue the construction of a fourth fire station.

Minutes can make a difference between life and death in a medical emergency. Studies show that the chances of surviving a heart attack decrease by 10 percent for each minute passed waiting for emergency medical help. Likewise, minutes can make the difference between knocking down a fire quickly or seeing a home or business totally consumed by raging flames.

According to Olympia Fire Department officials, the average response time to fire and medical emergencies was 11 minutes and 12 seconds for the first half of 2007.

That's unacceptable.

But it's easy to understand.

The last time the city of Olympia added a fire station to serve city residents and businesses was in 1969. Since then, the population of Olympia has grown by 80 percent. And since then, the number of fire and public safety calls Olympia Fire Department personnel respond to each year has grown by 1,400 percent.

In other words, the 470 calls out of the department's three fire stations for the entire year in 1970 matched the number of calls firefighters handled in just 24 days in 2005.

These are telling statistics, as is the average response time announced by Fire Chief Larry Dibble earlier this week. "We're trying to do the best we can with what we're given," he said. "We're asking the community to support bringing back the response times to the standard of the industry."

The fire chief said Olympia officials plan to acquire land for a fourth station by the end of the year and pay for it with more than $1.3 million in fire impact fee revenue. That's money that has been paid by developers to offset the costs of growth.

While the city can cover the costs of the land, it's likely that voters will be asked to increase taxes through an $8.8 million levy to build the station. Voters might be asked to approve another perpetual tax to cover annual operating costs of the new station.

The area that would benefit the most from a new fire station is west of Sleater-Kinney Road, south of the city limits at 26th Avenue Northeast, north of Interstate 5 and east of Boulevard Avenue.

Last year, the fire department logged 1,672 calls from that area out of a citywide total of 8,117.

Response time in District 4 averaged about 11 minutes in 2005, a waiting time that could be cut nearly in half with a new fire station in the area. But response times would drop citywide as well since fire and medical crews from the eastside, downtown and westside stations would not have to make runs to the Lilly Road area.

Peter Guttchen, chairman of the Coalition of Neighborhood Associations in Olympia is right when he said, "Something needs to be done. This is a critical public service, and response times do need to be improved. The problem will get worse if it's not addressed."

It's time for the city to move forward with plans for the fourth station.