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Smooth sailing for East Pierce transition

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By Brian Beckley-The Courier-Herald

Lt. Kevin Roorda is getting to be an old pro at assimilating into new, bigger fire departments.

When he became a firefighter, he was part of the Lake Tapps Fire Department, but that changed in 2000 when his department merged with Bonney Lake and Pierce County Fire District 12 to become East Pierce Fire and Rescue.

Things changed again for Roorda Jan. 1 when East Pierce officially consolidated operations with the Sumner Fire Department and he was moved to the Sumner station.

“I've experienced this already,” he said.

But thanks to a year-long effort in preparation of the merger, things throughout the newly expanded East Pierce coverage area have gone smoothly.

“It's not as brand new as people think,” Roorda said with a shrug. “We know all the guys on a first-name basis.”

In fact, he and Firefighter Daryl Flood, who has been working in Sumner for the better part of a year as part of an exchange between the two departments, said the hardest adjustment to make is getting used to the trains that pass by the firehouse in Sumner.

“It takes a couple of nights to get used to it,” Flood said with a laugh.

Like Roorda, all of the firefighters in East Pierce are adjusting to new positions and new territory as their department continues to grow.

Just months after voters in spring 2006 approved the new Tri-district, combining East Pierce with Pierce County Fire District 12 and South Prairie Fire District 20, the department expanded again, taking on the territory covered by Sumner.

East Pierce now covers more than 73,000 residents spread out over 142 square miles.

According to Chief Dan Packer, the expanded district provides many benefits to its residents, including increased staffing, a larger purchasing power and more political clout in Olympia.

“Once you get a little larger, you can do that sort of thing,” Packer said.

The expanded district has also increased its training opportunities to make better use of skills that Sumner firefighters bring to the table, such as increased knowledge of hazardous materials and exposure to large footprint buildings, like those found in Sumner's warehouse district.

Sumner also adds a ladder truck to the East Pierce fleet.

“We have integrated the workforce and spread the skills around,” Packer said. “It has meant an increase in service levels.”

“They brought some really good, really experienced people with them,” Capt. Pat Beers said, adding, “Experience is pretty important in this job.”

Beers is captain of East Pierce's Training Division, a luxury Sumner could not previously afford. The increased staffing may mean more work for him, but Beers said the increased staffing means better service for the district and the consolidation could mean even more increases to the growing department.

Beers became one of six full-time Bonney Lake firefighters in 1994. His first night on duty, he was alone at the station. This past week, he prepared to send seven new recruits to the state fire academy for training.

The talk of a merger with Sumner began a few years ago when a vacancy in the Sumner Fire Chief position opened up and the outgoing chief urged the Sumner city council to merge with a neighboring department in an effort to save money.

Sumner began by contracting with East Pierce for all administration work and the process of combining the two departments began. By the time the official day rolled around, the two departments had practically become one and many of the differences between them had disappeared.

“A lot of those cultural differences and nuances have been taken care of,” Packer said.

For Sumner residents, the larger departments means that two crews will be on call in Sumner, instead of one, and the department now does its own transfers to hospitals, instead of contracting with a private ambulance service.

The change means there will be no out-of-pocket expenses to a patient being transferred.

The additional crew also means mutual aid calls will be reduced as a second crew in Sumner means fewer have to come from neighboring towns to help out in an emergency.

“We're stopping the clock that much sooner,” Packer said, adding that calls often come in clusters. “You've got have a little extra depth on your bench.”

Officials do not expect the merger will cost residents any additional costs to residents, who are currently paying $2 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

“The homeowner won't see any difference,” Packer said.

And while some firefighters who have made the transition to new stations are still learning the lay of the land, Packer said the dispatch service East Pierce uses provides a map and address for every call and it is unusual a crew goes out without an East Pierce Firefighter on board.

Besides all involved said an emergency is an emergency.

“The calls don't really change,” Beers said. “Fires are the same whether you're here or there.”

Brian Beckley can be reached at bbeckley@courierherald.com.

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