Story & Photos by Gerald Patriarca
After 75 years, the city of Tukwila will no longer have a Fire Chief.
Starting Jan 1, 2023, Tukwila will join Covington, Maple Valley, Kent and SeaTac in contracting with the Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority for services.
Josh Kelch is the Support Services Battalion Chief for the Tukwila Fire Department and said regionalization of fire service is happening across the country.
“The idea of it is by creating a regional organization, we can decrease our cost as a fire department and still increase the service that our citizens get,” Kelch said.
Retiring Tukwila Fire Chief Jay Wittwer sided with Kelch, and added one of the benefits of joining Puget Sound RFA is their public education system.
“All schools in Tukwila will have a public education effort throughout the year,” Wittwer said. “That’s not something we’ve been able to provide to the community with our fire department to date.”
Wittmer emphasized how residents and businesses will see increased service levels within the city with this consolidation.
“The same level of service that we are delivering today will continue,” Wittwer added. Aside from Wittwer and the assistant to the fire chief, there will be no layoffs.
Puget Sound Regional Fire Authority Division Chief Pat Pawlak agreed.
“We’re all certified EMT’s [and] we’re all trained together for fire operations,” he said.
Pawlak gave an example of two fire stations that were formerly part of different organizations.
“Let’s take station 54, which is up on up by Foster High School,” Pawlak explained. “If that engine is on a call and there’s another aid call that comes into that area, they would get Engine 347, which comes from the city of SeaTac.”
Tukwila retains ownership of the fire stations. With the opening of new station 51 and station 52, Wittwer explained a 2016 public safety bond that was approved with over 60 percent of the votes pays for the construction of the new fire houses, along with a justice center on International Blvd., equipment and apparatus purchases.
“All of the funding has been identified to pay that bond back over the next 20 years, through the processes that were set up through the city of Tukwila,” Wittwer said.
The City of Tukwila will be contracting with Puget Sound RFA for two years.
“Part of the conditions of that contract is that a full annexation is to take place within the next two years, [but] it may take up to four years for that to happen,” Wittwer said. Once the annexation takes place, a contract is no longer needed.
Tukwila City Administrator David Cline said a vote by residents on annexation is set to take place before April 2024, moving fire services from a bridge contract. Annexation would make the city part owners of the Puget Sound RFA, and would moves the city into a different way of financing fire services, which includes property tax and what’s called a fire benefit charge, which is based on the fire risk, instead of the property value. It provides a “more sustainable financial model to continue to provide great fire services in Tukwila,” Cline said.
Robert Garrett is a business owner in Tukwila and is okay with a fire benefit charge, and understands that a larger property includes a larger risk of fire.
Garrett remembers yearly visits from firefighters.
“They used to do service calls every year on a regular basis,” he said, describing how firefighters would check for hazards and fire extinguishers.
That public outreach is expected to continue, Cline said, well beyond the classroom. “We have a great fire department.”
Gerald Patriarca has a BA in Communication from Seattle Pacific University with a background in journalism. He has written articles for his high school and college newspaper, spent time as an intern at KING 5 and KOMO 4 and worked at The Seattle Times. Aside from writing, Gerald, his wife Alma, and their son James own JAG’s Auto Detail in Tukwila. To schedule an appointment and for more information, please visit jagsautodetail.com.