Franklin Fire District 3 chief prepares to say goodbye

Tri-City HeraldJanuary 10, 2014 

Geoff Folsom | gfolsom@tricityherald.com Retiring Franklin Fire District 3 Chief Les Litzenberger, left, and new chief Mike Harris stand at the districtÕs station at Road 36 and Clark Road. Litzenberger, who will retire Jan. 31, has led the district through a controversy about ambulance service and helped it move into its new headquarters north of Pasco. Harris comes to the district from Benton Fire District 1.

The retiring chief of Franklin Fire District 3 is spending about two months making sure he's leaving the district he ran for 10 years in good hands.

Chief Les Litzenberger, 60, is staying on while the new leader of the 50-volunteer crew learns the ropes in the district that services parts of southern Franklin County and the unincorporated "doughnut hole" surrounded by west Pasco.

Mike Harris, 48, came from Benton Fire District 1, where he was deputy chief, on Dec. 2, and has been overseeing day-to-day operations in District 3 while Litzenberger ties up some loose ends before he retires Jan. 31.

Litzenberger helped the district's board find his replacement and said he was pleased with the decision.

"Mike's a local product, knows the fire service up and down," he said. "He knows the fire district and knows a lot of people and people are what it's all about. ... He is very knowledgeable on fire district law and the things that, if you don't do, will get you in trouble."

Easing the transition

The transition between the chiefs has been easier since voters in the district approved a levy lid lift in November that raised what the district's 6,000 residents pay in property taxes to $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property valuation from $1.18 per $1,000, Litzenberger said.

The tax increase allowed the district to continue operating the ambulance service it had been running on reserve funds since the city of Pasco attempted to raise what it charges the district for emergency medical services by 500 percent.

The district is still adjusting to its new headquarters at its station at Road 36 and Clark Road. The $898,794 in renovations added offices, a classroom, weight room and living quarters for a resident program.

Litzenberger said moving the headquarters to the site northwest of Tri-Cities Airport from the station on Road 84 and Court Street in the doughnut hole allowed it to better prepare for uncertainty caused by possible future annexation by the city.

But the district maintains a strong presence in the doughnut hole with two stations, two full-time employees who are usually assigned to the area and 20 volunteer firefighters who live there, Litzenberger said.

The district also has stations on Pasco-Kahlotus Highway in the eastern part of the county and on Selph Landing Road in the western part of the county.

The district also is working on adding some new territory, taking over from Franklin Fire District 2, which has petitioned to de-annex some of its area near Star School, just west of the Snake River. If approved, it would bring the district's service area to 210 square miles, up from the current 150 square miles.

A petition by landowners in the area is being reviewed by the county auditor's office, Litzenberger said. The annexation by District 3 will then need approval from the district's board as well as Franklin County commissioners.

Litzenberger said he hopes the annexation will be complete within the first quarter of 2014.

The change would improve service to the area since District 2 doesn't provide ambulance service, Litzenberger said.

New chief's goals

Coming from across the river to work with Litzenberger makes the learning curve easier, Harris said.

Harris started at Benton Fire District 1 in 1985 as a volunteer and worked his way up to deputy chief. He said he was attracted to his new job because of the agricultural area of rural Franklin County, compared to the desert area he covered in Benton County.

Harris, who is being paid $87,000 annually, lives in Kennewick, but plans to move to Pasco to be closer to the district and, more importantly, be part of the community, he said. He is overseeing a department with a $1.4 million budget.

He has noticed some differences between the districts. The Franklin County district has more career staff and an attorney to handle its budget, while Benton Fire District 1 had two office staffers.

Harris wants to use more up-to-date equipment for the district's dispatch, as well as explore other technology, he said.

Harris has already started the process of bringing new technology to the district by starting a Twitter account (@FranklinFire3) to update residents.

"Right now, it's more on incidents, but I'd like to use it to talk about public education and things going on with the district," he said.

Harris also wants to make sure the district has enough volunteers to fight fires. While District 3 has 50 firefighters, many are not available when a fire breaks out. He said a routine house fire requires at least 14 firefighters.

That means the district will step up recruiting and also use the new living quarters to house student-firefighters who work with the department as part of their training.

"That's a model that's been very successful in other communities," Harris said.

Getting grants for equipment and station improvements will also be a priority, he said.

The district wants to build relationships with other departments, which depend on one another for help fighting fires. Harris is particularly interested in working with Pasco for ambulance calls that require a paramedic, a service not provided by District 3's emergency services.

Litzenberger retires

Litzenberger has been a firefighter since 1978 and has been Franklin Fire District 3 chief since February 2003.

He decided to retire in July, mainly because he developed asthma. He said his doctor told him being around smoke and fire for years likely exacerbated the condition.

Litzenberger plans to stay involved with firefighting in retirement, or as much as he can while avoiding smoke. He plans to volunteer with Franklin County Emergency Management's emergency operations center.

He has a garage full of hot rods to work on in his spare time and also plans to travel.

"There's so much of the United States I haven't seen and even parts of the Northwest, and I've lived here all my life," Litzenberger said.

Litzenberger gets a lump in his throat when he talks about what he will miss most about the job -- the people he works with, as well as those he works for.

"It's a huge satisfaction to be able to help somebody on their worst day, whether it's a motor vehicle accident or their house is on fire," he said.

w Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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