The Poulsbo Fire Department was formally organized in 1936 by a dedicated group of volunteers with a 1918 American LaFrance fire engine and a handful of used hose and equipment, under the leadership of Mr. Rudie M. Iverson, our first fire chief.
The beloved 1918 American LaFrance fire engine continued to service the City of Poulsbo as the only pumping unit (with a splendid record) until 19 40, when a brand new truck was ordered. This was a 1941 Ford equipped with a 95 HP Mercury engine and fitted with a 500 gallon per minute American LaFrance pumping unit, plus a 200 gallon water tank, 150 feet ‘of booster hose, aluminum ladders, 650 feet of 2-1/2″ hose and 200 feet of 1-1/2″ hose in the hose bed, (4) 5-gallon backpack-type canister hand pumps, 10 hard helmets, a first aid kit, and many other items, making this unit strictly up to date. A new fire hall had been constructed at the present location of City Hall including two truck bays and a hose drying tower.
During World War II, a national program for home defense was organized and referred to as Civilian Defense. Under these overall auspices, the Poulsbo Fire Department undertook a program of local instruction. The former meetings of the men of the Department had been held monthly but now were increased to weekly and in some cases to twice weekly. Local area first aid stations were set-up and many civilian defense drills were held to include the public. The threat of aerial bombs being dropped here or submarines entering Puget Sound and shelling the Naval facilities was on everyone’s mind and people had to be prepared. First aid schools were set-up under the direction of the Poulsbo
Fire Department with Leif Ness as the head and classes were held at the local schools, grange halls, fraternal lodges, and wherever necessary. A huge air raid alarm horn had been installed in the center of Poulsbo to alert the people in the event of an air raid. Air raid lookout stations were established on the tops of the surrounding hills and these were manned 24 hours a day, although not by the Fire Department. Additionally, a night patrol with a deputized armed guard stood watch each night at the telephone building to prevent sabotage.
In 1943 it became apparent that one fire truck was insufficient. New fire trucks could not be purchased, as the automobile and truck factories were working overtime producing war materials. To meet the need, a used 1937 Ford truck rated at 1-1/2 tons was purchased. Also a 500-gallon portable pump built by the Chrysler Company had been obtained from the Office of Civilian Defense. These were taken to George Knudson’s garage and the Fire Department members worked many nights installing the pump on the truck, constructing a hose bed and salvaging what other items they could from the old 1918 American LaFrance engine that was now retired. This gave the Department two trucks equipped with dual rear wheels and four-wheel brakes that could respond to a fire either in the City or outside. Still, the entire department manning was made up of volunteers, responding to the loud fire alarm horn. No one remained at the station overnight but still the first truck was rolling onto the street usually within three minutes after the alarm sounded during the night, and in less time during the day.
While not run by the fire department, it’s notable that during this decade, Poulsbo’s first ambulance service was established by the American Legion, starting service in 1948 with a 1942 Ford panel delivery truck. The crew was trained only in first aid such as splinting a broken bone and then transporting the patient to the Bremerton hospital.
By 1960, Chief Rudie Iverson, who had served in that capacity for 24 years since the official and formal organization of the Department in 1936, stepped down and the Mayor of Poulsbo appointed Clarence Paulson to be the new Chief. Clarence was well qualified, having been a fireman for many years and additionally he was the Public Works Superintendent for the City.
During this era, the need for an organized fire district outside the City limits was noted. The cost of the equipment required to properly cover the area both in and out of the City was more then the tax base of the City of Poulsbo and the donations from the annual Firemen’s Ball could support. Tax money from outside the City limits was necessary if the commitment to properly protect this area was to be fulfilled. Rudie Iverson, together with Charlie Olson, Martin Anderson, and others began holding a series of meetings in the grange halls, fraternal halls, and churches to acquaint the residents of the desirability of forming fire protection districts that could elect fire commissioners and levy taxes for fire protection purposes. Accordingly, in 1961, Fire District 17 in Lemolo was formed and immediately contracted with Poulsbo for fire protection.
The next year, 1962, Fire District 18 was formed, comprising most of the area north of Poulsbo (but not the town limits of Port Gamble), east to Suquamish, and on the west side from Keyport north and west to Hood Canal except for the Navy Base at Bangor. With this additional tax base, District 18 was able to purchase a new Ford truck fitted with 1,000 gallon per minute Curtis pump. Then, in 1965, a Boardman 1,200 gallon tanker was purchased on a Ford truck chassis.
As the number of people living in and around Poulsbo increased, so did the capability of the Fire Department. The men within the Department were taking greater pride in their duties and many were attending firefighter’s schools as well as classes taught at the regular Monday night meetings. The Chief and others were attending schooling for fire chiefs and directors. With all the additional rolling stock, it was determined that a new and enlarged station was required in Poulsbo. Fire Commissioners Vince Prouty, Jack Oas, and Nick Lakeness acting for District 18 together with the City Council of Poulsbo signed an agreement and the new quarters were constructed adjacent to the former. The work was accomplished without need for a special or additional tax levy. More people continued to move into the north end of the County and were constructing much larger and higher value homes. Quicker response in the north was required. A site at Surfrest Park for a new station was selected but it was not completed and operational until 1971. By this time the Poulsbo Fire Department was comprised of two fire stations, one in downtown Poulsbo and one at Surfrest Park, three engine pumper trucks each with 500 to 1000 gallons of water in tanks, and one tank truck with 1200 gallon capacity.
Soon, the scope of the fire and medical aid requirements were exceeding the capacity of the existing Poulsbo Fire Department which was composed entirely of volunteers. Medical aid was furnished by the American Legion Ambulance up until 1975 when the duty was taken over by Poulsbo Fire Department and the fulfillment of this additional service taxed the volunteers to the limit. In the later part of this decade, the decision was made to change from an all volunteer department to one with a full-time paid fire chief as well as full-time paid medical crews for the ambulance.
The first step in implementing this new concept was the hiring of Larry Dibble as full-time paid Fire Chief, reporting for duty on September 10, 1979, when former Fire Chief Charlie Olson stepped down. The advanced medical aid concept was authorized but was not implemented and in operation with licensed paramedics until 1980, the ambulances being operated by qualified EMTs up until then. Additionally, during this decade, the decision was made to construct a second satellite or outlying fire station, this one on Clear Creek Road slightly north of the intersection with Finn Hill Road. Both this station and the other satellite at Surfrest Park, made possible quicker response to the scene of a fire or accident. Volunteers did not have to drive all the way into the Poulsbo main station and then back out again on a fire vehicle, but rather could now respond to a closer station and drive the fire engine from there to the scene.
Growth continued and by 1984 Poulsbo had a department consisting of a paid fire chief, assistant chief, fire marshal, paramedics, firefighter, secretary and a considerable volunteer crew of firemen. With this expanded staff and the new equipment purchased, the Washington Surveying and Rating Bureau considered Poulsbo in far better condition relative to fire protection, but still not sufficiently improved to warrant a change from Class 5 to Class 4.
In 1985, Chief Larry Dibble left the Department to return to Olympia and Jim Shields was appointed by the City of Poulsbo and Fire Districts 17 and 18 as the new Chief. The budgets had been increased until in 1986 the Department consisted of the paid Chief, Jim Shields, one Assistant Chief, Bob Lord, in charge of support services which included the medical units (he was also a paramedic), three Paramedics, Chris Morrison, George Epperly, and Jeff Cowan, one Lieutenant/ Firefighter, Mike Walsh, and two Firefighter/EMTs, Steve Behal and Bob Brooks to complete the medical portion of the force. Additionally, one Fire Marshal, Bob Nordnes, who conducted site plan reviews on new construction and headed the Fire Prevention Bureau, one Fire Inspector, Jerry Cooper, one Firefighter/Mechanic, Eric Quitslund in charge of vehicle maintenance as well as being on call during the days to respond to fire calls, and a secretary, Karen Lord. There were also about 50 volunteers. The organization was now such that the daytime calls were answered by the on-duty medical crew of one paramedic and one firefighter/EMT driving the medic unit. The Assistant Chief, Fire Marshal, Fire Inspector, Firefighter/Mechanic and available volunteers responded with the fire engine or rescue unit. Additional equipment, if required, was manned by volunteers. During the nights and weekends when the paid firefighters were not on duty, the paid medic crew responded with the medic unit and the fire trucks were manned by the volunteers. The paid personnel all worked out of the main station in downtown Poulsbo. The two satellite stations were manned by volunteers.
In 1988 a joint operating agreement was signed by the now consolidated Board of Commissioners and the Poulsbo City Council to fund the department 50/50; although the paid staff would be city employees, responders were responsible for both the city and the district. Over the next few years more firefighters and paramedics were hired in addition to two more administrative support personnel. By 1997, there were three shifts of six, with minimum staffing of four per shift, each shift having a captain and two paramedics and four firefighter/EMTs. The department had now been converted from a few paid staff augmenting the volunteers to a few volunteers augmenting the paid staff.
In 1998 serious talks began regarding annexing the City of Poulsbo into Kitsap County Fire District #18. By this time the City of Poulsbo was ready to retire from the business of fire and the fire department was ready to be managed by one entity, not two. The balancing act had become increasingly difficult and both sides agreed it was far better for the citizens if the district took
over the department. A campaign was launched and in November 1999, 86 percent of the City of Poulsbo citizens as well as 86 percent of the KCFD #18 citizens voted “YES!” to annexation. As soon as the election was certified, all the equipment converted over to district ownership, as did the headquarters station. In January of 2000, the employees of the department became, for the first time in its history, solely district employees.
Just prior to the recession, as property values began to decline, the Poulsbo area saw tremendous growth and an increase in call volumes. As resources were stretched and expenditures began to exceed revenues, longtime Fire Chief Jim Shields led the department in requesting a taxing “lid lift” from voters. Poulsbo Fire is primarily funded by property taxes, referred to as a Levy. The two regular levies are a fire levy limited to $1.50/$1,000 of assessed valuation (AV), and an Emergency Medical Services (EMS) levy limited to $.50 /1,000 (AV). These levies were last approved to their limit in 2007 and 2013 respectively.
Poulsbo Fire Department has had other revenue challenges over the years. In 2012, under the leadership of Fire Chief Jeffrey Griffin, the department passed a capitol bond to replace aging fire engines and repair aging buildings. In addition, Chief Griffin led the Department in acquisition of a state-of-the-art fire and rescue boat.
Chief Griffin retired this year, 2018, and in July the new Chief James Gillard took over leadership of the Department. Financial obstacles are once again a threat to maintaining service levels. Washington State has one of the most restrictive taxing laws in the country. Currently, the levy rate of $1.50/$1000 (AV) has fallen to $1.35/$1000 (AV) for 2018 and is projected further fall to $1.24/$1000 (AV). This is due to the law which restricts the department’s annual revenue growth to 1%. As the cost of living (including the value of property) rises with inflation, the levy rate is reduced to meet the 1% limitation. This creates a sustainability issue. Cost increases outpace funding despite continued efforts to improve efficiency and reduce expenditures.
Under the new leadership of James Gillard and authorization by the Poulsbo Fire Board of Commissioners, the department will once again ask voters for a “levy lid lift.” This levy is asking for a restoration of the $1.50 per $1000 AV, and is necessary to sustain service levels.
Today the Poulsbo Fire Department is a professional all-hazards emergency response agency serving the communities of Poulsbo, Port Gamble, Keyport, and the surrounding unincorporated areas, with 44 staff; 39 of them uniformed firefighters, paramedics, and officers. Our career staff continues to be supported by a dedicated and well trained cadre of volunteers.
The history of Poulsbo Fire Department is long and colorful. As we continue into the future, every one of us will continue to carry out our responsibilities with pride and the level of professionalism the citizens of Poulsbo and District #18 deserve.