Western Washington growth could impact public safety

MARYSVILLE, Wash. -- It’s no secret Western Washington is growing at a historic pace, with more businesses and people moving into the area each and every year.

While that may contribute to a healthy economy, emergency responders in these communities are wondering how they’re going to keep up with all these people.

The greater Seattle area is growing fast, and cities to the metro’s north, south, east and west are experiencing it, too.

In Kirkland, the calmness of the lakefront is a stark contrast to all the new development underway. In her State of the City Address last month, Mayor Amy Walen discussed how Kirkland will need to “grow gracefully.”

It’s something other cities like Marysville are grappling with as one of the fastest-growing cities in they country. While still recovering from the recession, the fire department is especially feeling the squeeze.

“The growth obviously increases our call volume significantly,” said Marysville Fire Captain Dean Shelton. “We had grown so fast in coverage area, but unfortunately those decreased revenue streams meant we also saw a decrease in the level of service.”

Firefighters say they’re trying to make do with the resources they have, from responding to medical calls to calls for help at a city park. However, Shelton worries that one day, they won’t have enough resources to get to a call in time.

“Clearly our goal is to respond as fast as we can and as efficiently as we can to accommodate every call that comes in, but there are going to be constraints,” said Shelton.

It’s a concern being felt in the South Sound as well. Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor expects his department will soon be serving a million people within the next decade.

“Currently we have a criminal justice system that is about a 600,000-person county, but we have an 830,000-person county,” said Pastor.

Pastor says while more people are moving in, his department isn’t growing fast enough.

“If we know this growth is coming, it would make sense to begin gearing up,” said Pastor.

What that could mean is areas in the vast county are left unprotected.

"With more people, there is more congestion and more conflict between people and there will also be a bit more crime," said Pastor. “We need to think ahead, we need to prepare, and we need to consider this.”

It’s why fire departments and law enforcement agencies are turning to their communities for help, whether encouraging neighborhood policing or seeking more funding through levies and taxes, they say they won’t be able to handle the growth alone.

“The growth won’t happen overnight; the building of the criminal justice infrastructure won’t happen overnight, but if we don’t start now, we will be slapping our foreheads and saying ‘gee where did all these people come from, and what are we going to do about it,’” said Pastor.

In Marysville, some are pushing for a regional fire district. They believe that’s the solution to cover a larger area more efficiently.

In Pierce County, the sheriff said, an independent study showed the department needs 72 additional people to keep up with the need But how will they fund it? That’s the next big hurdle.