Stronger Families. Stronger Communities. Stronger Washington

Fireline (2nd Quarter 2024): An Official Publication of the Washington Fire Commissioners Association:

Over the past four years as a state representative, I toured numerous fire stations and districts on the front line protecting our communities. I represent diverse communities in the Legislative District including parts of Lewis, Cowlitz, and Clark counties. Each county has had emergencies like heat waves, cold snaps, flooding, and fires. In each case, our professional full-time and volunteer firefighters were among the first responders protecting our citizens.

There are some communities with the financial means, tax base, and property values to pass ballot measures that support the needs of our first responders. However, many other communities are unable to pass ballot measures for one reason or another. This puts their neighbors at risk and increases insurance costs for those who can least afford it.

Several communities in Lewis County are perfect examples where working families and fixed-income households can’t absorb additional tax increases. But, those same households deserve to be protected.

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In the Chehalis Basin, I saw first-hand the need for additional facility funding as we set up temporary shelters at Centralia Middle School during flood evacuations. In Packwood during the Goat Rocks fire, I witnessed exhausted firefighters from local, state, and federal agencies sleeping on the ground. Families evacuated from their homes due to forest fires were moved to a school gym.  

Some emergencies in Lewis County, like the Goat Rocks fire, occurred 80 miles from the nearest large city in the county. Rural communities don’t have the resources or facilities to fight these natural disasters on their own but are on the front-line protecting communities.

Not all scenarios were as dramatic.

Some communities struggle to keep up with growth quickly pinching rural communities. Other communities are seeing fire department facilities deteriorating from age.  In these cases, fire districts need the resources to protect communities. Also, without adequate facilities and staff to keep communities safe, many already struggling small businesses and working families are forced to pay higher insurance rates.

As the ranking member on the House Capital Budget Committee, I immediately began researching grants and funding dedicated to building and maintaining fire district facilities. I wanted to help fire departments create training centers, cooling/warming stations, evacuation points, and a front-line for combating forest fires.  Sadly, there wasn’t a grant program dedicated to fire district infrastructure funding.

In my first term in the Legislature, I pre-field House Bill 1929 to establish a competitive grant program under the state Department of Commerce to award up to $2 million to local governments in rural counties for capital projects that would improve fire protection services. Unfortunately, the bill never received a hearing.  

Despite the lack of a hearing, I was proud to fight for funding in the capital budget for fire districts. Although capital budget investments were made in the 2021-2022 legislative session, it did not meet the need and I continued to advocate for a permanent dedicated grant program.

In 2023, I refiled the bill as House Bill 1014. The legislation received a hearing in the House Capital Budget Committee but was not given an executive session vote. Again, the capital budget funded numerous fire district projects; however, it did not meet the demand and no permanent funding source was created.

You know what they say, “Third time’s a charm.” 

This fall, I will again re-file the rural fire district funding legislation with a new house bill number. I am confident with your help and support we will pass this policy, improve fire safety, and help absorb some of the fire safety costs to relieve the economic burden on working families and small businesses.

Rep. Peter Abbarno represents the 20th Legislative District and is the Ranking Member on the House Capital Budget Committee.

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