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Volunteer firefighters for Okanogan County Fire District 6 have been facing unsafe working conditions at the Winthrop Station for many years. It’s reaching a breaking point where some are considering leaving the fire district or switching to other stations. This is problematic since 90% of the fire district’s first responders are volunteers, and the Winthrop Fire Station receives more emergency calls than any other.
“The number one expectation volunteers have is that they will be provided a safe working environment,” said volunteer firefighter and Winthrop Station Captain John Owen. “The Winthrop station conditions put our volunteers at risk of injury or worse”
This summer, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L & I) inspected the Winthrop Fire Station and found six instances of inadequate clearance, defined as less than 36 inches around apparatus. Two engines have less than two inches of clearance between walls and the engine body. Inadequate clearance means drivers of emergency apparatus are unable to quickly access and inspect the equipment when called to an emergency. Poor clearance also makes it difficult to see while apparatus is moving and volunteers are at risk of being struck.
“This could cause serious injury to the worker, including permanent disability of a limited or less severe nature, or injuries resulting in hospitalization,” said John McFadden, Regional Consultation Manager for the Division of Occupational Safety and Health for Labor and Industries.
L&I is an independent state agency dedicated to worker and work place safety. Its report confirms what volunteers have been saying for many years about the station being an unsafe work environment.
“These guys pour their heart and soul into training and learning emergency operations to save your life,” said Captain Owen. “Isn’t it reasonable for them to expect a safe operating environment?”
Volunteer participation at the Winthrop station has steadily declined from 21 volunteers in 2007 to just 10 people in 2013. Winthrop receives more 911 calls than any other station in the fire district, 41.3 percent in 2012. It also responds to 100 percent of emergency calls that come into Twisp and Mazama, and 60 percent of Carlton’s calls.
“We should have a minimum of 25 volunteers at the Winthrop Station to provide adequate coverage. Right now we have 10,” said Owen. “We don’t have enough emergency responders, and this is not safe for our community or our volunteers.”
Owen says that the fire district is stuck between “a rock and a hard place.” Even if they could recruit 25 volunteers for Winthrop, there would be no space for them to dress or hang their gear. In fact, it would make the safety conditions at the station worse with the additional crowding.
“Taxpayers can solve this safety problem,” said Owen. “We hope they will recognize the value of our volunteers and correct it.”
Lieutenant Mark Crum has been a Winthrop volunteer for seven years. He says the poor conditions at the Winthrop Station are constantly on his mind. “We put our lives on the line fighting fires to protect the community, and we deserve to be safe at the station. I struggle to justify this unnecessary risk to my family.”
Owen has communicated his concerns and those of his Winthrop FireFighters Association members repeatedly to the Board of Fire Commissioners and Fire Chief. The fire district plans to ask voters to approve a lid lift in the fall of 2014 to build a district fire station in Winthrop. (The current station is owned by the town.)
“Volunteer firefighters save our taxpayers an estimated $1.3 million each year in personnel costs,” said Owen. “Our fire district cannot afford to function without them.”
The Winthrop FireFighters Association (WFFA) was established in 2006 and is supported by volunteers throughout the Okanogan County Fire District 6. The mission of WFFA is to promote and support the activities, safety and well-being of its members while providing public safety and service to the community.