Guest Column

From the Fire Chief


By the time our citizens read this, I will have been the “new” fire chief of Key Peninsula Fire District 16 for five months. I have enjoyed getting to know the community and our staff as they continue to provide unwavering medical, fire and rescue services to the residents of the KP.

I have worked in this rewarding profession for nearly 34 years. Growing up in Montesano in Grays Harbor, I got my first taste of what the job entails as a volunteer. That led to paramedic school at Tacoma Community College and a 17-year career as a firefighter/paramedic in Aberdeen. Eventually discovering that I wanted to have a chance to shape and lead my own fire department, I embarked on a management track that took me to the Midwest and Clark County, Washington, and now the KP where I am about to celebrate my 14th year as a fire chief. It is wonderful to be back in the Puget Sound region in an area where I essentially grew up.

The KP fire department is comprised of 33 full-time firefighters, as well as a complement of highly trained volunteer firefighters, serving the needs of some 18,000 citizens on the KP and Herron Island. With 18 of our staff cross-trained as firefighter/paramedics — our crews answer calls for medical emergencies and transport, as well as fire, auto accidents and water rescue. We deploy paramedic units out of stations 44 in Wauna and 49 in Longbranch, and a fire engine out of 47 in Home. A fire engine is also stored at the Herron Island Community Center, but we transport firefighters to the island to utilize it. Stations 44, 47 and 49 are staffed 24/7. Station 46 in Key Center is the location of our administrative offices and volunteer units. Volunteers also respond out of station 45 on Wright-Bliss Road at Four Corners.

My first few months were very busy interviewing staff members to understand what concerns and ideas they had to share. These interviews will be used to formulate our path forward as the first step in developing a strategic plan for the district.

Perhaps one of the biggest topics of community conversation has been the district’s acquisition of the restaurant property (former O’Callahan’s) in Key Center. This was done in conjunction with the goal of our capital facilities plan to have a property for a new fire station and training facility. Commissioners temporarily suspended repairs to the building early last summer but ultimately entered into an agreement to allow the tenant to complete work needed to open a new restaurant. In the short term, this will allow the district to collect lease revenue from the building while we continue to discuss the district’s growth and what that would look like.

We continue to monitor challenges with our 2022 budget while we prepare our 2023 budget. The department is funded through two property taxes: our fire levy and our emergency medical services levy. With so little commercial development on the KP, we rely almost exclusively on residential property taxes to staff and equip our firefighters. This is a challenge faced by all rural fire districts in Washington.

We were initially forecasting a $200,000 budget shortfall by the end of 2022. This was due to multiple factors, including unexpected repairs and legal costs, as well as increased overtime. By taking proactive steps to decrease spending and overtime, I am pleased to note we are now projected to finish 2022 with a positive balance of $187,000. This is still too close for my comfort level, so we will continue our budget freeze through the end of this year.

We also want to focus on how we can improve our volunteer firefighter program. These programs are struggling nationwide as demographics change. Most volunteers now are looking for career jobs, and with the training and guidance we provide they usually get them quickly. The downside to this is very few of our volunteers stay with us for more than two or three years. It’s a challenge recruiting and replacing them so often and recent budget pressures have prevented us from running a new volunteer academy in over two years.

Finally, we want to improve our relationships and communications. This guest column is one such method to do that, as well as speaking with the many community groups I have met over the past few months. My tenure as your fire chief will be one of open lines of communication and transparency. I want everyone on the KP to feel comfortable understanding how their fire department works and how it spends their tax dollars. I am always available to take questions or address concerns from members of the community. Give me a call, send an email or simply stop by our fire station in Key Center.

If you would like to be active in helping guide the department’s future, please consider joining our Citizen Advisory Panel. You can find information on how to join on our website at

Thank you for the honor of leading your Key Peninsula Fire District.

Nick Swinhart is KPFD fire chief.