It was November 2009 when Enumclaw firefighters, responding to a fire about a half mile outside of Cumberland, took 18 minutes to arrive on scene from downtown.
King County Fire District No. 28 Chief Joe Clow recalled that in the end, that residential fire caused about 50 percent structural damage to the house. The occupants, luckily, weren't home.
Of the response time, "In my reckoning, that's not good enough," he said.
That event, in part, spurred Clow and the District commissioners to look into how to better staff the Cumberland station to avoid a future incident like this. Though once the area was served by a substantial number of volunteer firefighters, they had moved on or retired, leaving the station mostly unstaffed, said Commissioner Dave Hannity.
At the time, the station did not have sleeping quarters for the volunteer firefighters. If resident volunteers could live at the station, they reasoned, they could be the immediate responders to incidents out in the area and crews from downtown Enumclaw could then serve as back-up.
Staff looked into various properties across the way on Veazie-Cumberland Road and even made a $225,000 offer on a foreclosed home across the street. It was not accepted.
A Below-Market Modular Home
At about the same time, Hannity's in-laws had passed away leaving a modular home for their family to put on the market. Their asking price was initially $115,000, Hannity said.
For comparison, Volunteer Capt. Darrin Pratt came back to the commissioners with some modular homes he'd looked at on the market and they were more than $200,000, Hannity said.
At $85,000, the commissioners went with the modular home. The Washington State Auditor's Office in a September 2010 report found that the commissioners violated purchasing and conflict of interest laws in not soliciting bids for a structure from the public. ()
In their response to the audit, the commissioners said they believed the home was real property and that bids weren't required. The Auditor's Office disagreed.
The details of the audit finding has fueled the District's critics who were already examining its financial activity under the lens of a microscope. : "The fact that they were found guilty for conflict of interest laws is more proof the fire commissioners are not acting in the best interest of the tax payers."
Qualls continues to assert that the District was committing fraud, but the finding being what it is, Clow said all the costs associated with the hiring of contractors to prepare, move, install and renovate the home were legitimate, and all procedures followed in soliciting bids and going with the most competitive and best service providers.
He doesn't dispute that the $307,410.62 final price tag for the project is high. It wasn't, however, out of the range the district was looking to spend. As discussed in commissioners meetings that are open to the public, "The goal of the project was it wasn't supposed to cost more than the house [foreclosed and on market for $225,000] across the street," Clow said.
That was a foreclosed home that still needed major renovation, new fixtures, appliances and furniture, Clow said.
Inspired by a North Bend dormitory for wildland firefighters and similar to facilities for summer crews who work at state and national parks, the commissioners also had a design worked up and cost analysis done on how much it would cost to build such a facility, Clow said. The cost figure came back again, being more than $200,000.
All things considered, the cost of the modular home project would be in the same ballpark as the other two options.
The one additional cost, according to Clow, was that water and septic needed to be redone both at the main station building as well as set up for the modular home. The station's septic system prior to the renovation consisted of two 55-gallon drums filled with gravel, he said. Being that various community groups use the station's kitchen and communal area as well, the septic system was an issue commissioners wanted to address for a while, he said.
Doing it 'On the Cheap'
At first, the commissioners thought the work could be done with in-house talent. "I approached this pretty naively thinking it wouldn't be a bid deal," Clow said. "But King County shot us out of the water."
Clow said he had been to the King County offices of Development and Environmental Services four times to file paperwork and get proper building permits but still couldn't start on the project. "We were told something different each time," he said.
In the end, Clow approached County Councilman Reagan Dunn to help navigate the bureaucracy.
Going with Contractors Instead
Reconsidering the loss of staff on each shift if they were out doing construction work on the home, said Hannity, the commissioners ultimately decided to put the project out for bid.
Hedges Engineering & Consulting, Inc. in Sumner took the job when the commissioners initially received no bids. At first, Hedges was just hired to help do the permitting work and design the septic system, Clow said. When it came time for rebids, they were hired to run the whole project from November 2010 through August 2011.
Lake Tapps Construction was hired to remove, relocate and install the home. They quoted the commissioners about $108,000 for the work, said Clow. An additional $6,000 was charged when Clow asked the company to help install a new water line as well as clear out a lot of invasive brush in the area.
In the end, "it's hard to say if it's more expensive to run in-house," Clow said, when asked if it would have been cheaper to have the fire personnel do the work themselves.
A more detailed breakdown of project costs are at the bottom of this article.
Better Staffing Still Ongoing Process
Currently, five volunteer resident firefighters reside at the new quarters. Four of them are national registry EMTs but are waiting to get clearance from King County before they're able to transport patients. One resident is working to becoming an EMT by November but currently has advanced first aid certification.
What this means is that for the time being, if a citizen approached the station for help taking someone to the hospital, they are not qualified to do so, Clow said. They have to call in to headquarters for that transport.
To move the orientation process along, Clow said he's setting up a rotation for veteran volunteers to sleep at the quarters at regular intervals in order to get a chance to work with the new volunteers. All volunteers are required to sleep two nights a month at the headquarters, he said.
"This gives them [new volunteers] a chance to be operational sooner because they have vet out here," he said.
The ultimate staffing goal is to have every week night (6 p.m. to 6 a.m.) at the Cumberland station staffed, along with 24 hour staffing on weekends.
Total Project Costs
- Modular Home Purchase Price: $85,000
- Mt. Villa Mobile Home Park for space, rental and utilities: $4,366.73
- King County fees and permits: $3,403
- Hedges Engineering for project management: $6,361.46
- HD Quality Septic for design services: $3,800
2010 Subtotal: $102,931.19
- Mt. Villa Mobile Home Park for space, rental and utilities: $4,206.11
- King County fees and permits: $666.49
- Hedges Engineering for project management: $59,813.27
- HD Quality Septic: $1,191
- Lake Tapps Construction for removal, relocation and installation of home: $115,032.44
- Utilities, connections and new service: $12,393.06
- Furniture and fixtures: $11,177.06
2011 Subtotal: $204,479.43
Total Project: $307.410.62