West Richland's first full-time female firefighter

When Bonnie Benitz was a little girl, she dreamed of being either a nun or a firefighter when she grew up.

The Richland woman opted for a career fighting fires because "it sounded like a lot more fun" and now is the first full-time female firefighter for Benton Fire District 4 and the department's first paramedic.

Benitz said that she feels "like just one of the guys" because she's been in the business for so long, having started firefighting in 2004 in Washougal.

She's thrilled to be the fire district's first paramedic.

"It's a huge honor," she said. "I feel so lucky -- so blessed. It's a job I've wanted for so long, and here I get to do a job I love, working for fantastic people."

Voters in Fire District 4, which primarily covers West Richland, approved an EMS levy last year that allows the fire agency to start running its own ambulance service.

A phased-in service is expected to start in February with full, 24-hour service expected to start by May 1, said Chief Mike Spring.

"It's a very aggressive plan," Spring admits, noting that there are several steps that need to be taken -- including hiring three more paramedics, getting a second ambulance and making changes to the stations.

The district has 10 full-time staffers and about 25 volunteers to cover about 52 square miles.

Some firefighters are cross-trained as emergency medical technicians, and they respond to all emergency calls. But if someone needs to be taken to a hospital, they have to be taken in an ambulance operated by the Richland Fire Department or Benton Fire District 2 in Benton City.

Fire District 4 already has bought its own ambulance using the district's reserve fund, but will be reimbursed with taxes collected from the EMS levy, Spring said.

Voters agreed last spring to pay 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value. The district will collect about $500,000 a year with the six-year levy, and officials say about half the money will cover operating costs for the ambulance service.

The other half will be used for capital expenses -- including paying off $1 million in commissioner bonds that were sold to add an ambulance bay at the Bombing Range station and living quarters to the station on Grosscup Boulevard.

Fire officials have to phase-in the ambulance service because they don't start collecting the taxes until April and don't have enough in reserves to pay for everything upfront, Spring said.

It cost about $180,000 to buy the ambulance and the equipment, Spring said.

"We didn't buy a brand new ambulance, but it looks brand new," Spring said. "We saved about $20,000 on a demo. ... We hope to get a second ambulance so a flat tire doesn't put us out of commission."

Benitz, a volunteer firefighter for the district for 18 months, officially was hired as a paramedic Dec. 6. She was a paramedic in Yakima County for about two years, and she will be responsible for helping get West Richland's service started.

"I'm so excited to be a part of the new EMS and to get that up and going," she said. "It's a huge honor."

The fire district used a national firefighter testing service to handle the initial hiring steps, then had help from other fire officials to interview the top 10 candidates. Spring said of the 41 people who applied, Benitz ended up first on the hiring list.

"I was happy we could hire one of our own," he said. "She's a very experienced paramedic, and she's a trained firefighter already."

Until the district's ambulance service is fully operational, they still will rely on Richland and Fire District 2 to help handle calls, Spring said. Starting in February, EMS calls will be "dual dispatched," meaning both District 4 and one of the other agencies will get toned out, but if Benitz is on duty, she can cancel the other agency and respond with her crew, Spring explained.

By May, they hope to be able to cancel the dual dispatching, but other agencies still could be called out for mutual aid responses. And those agencies also could call District 4 for help if needed.

In the meantime, fire district officials are learning what is involved in running an ambulance service.

They also will be adjusting to new schedules, learning how to fill out the extra medical paperwork and restocking the ambulance when they get back.

Spring said he knows some residents likely are disappointed the full ambulance service didn't start when the new year began, but he said they are moving as fast as they can and are making sure they're doing everything right.

It's been a lot of work -- and will continue to be -- but Spring said he thinks it's great they are able to finally add a service that residents first requested four years ago.

"This has been citizen driven, not fire service, but I would never say it's not the right thing to do," Spring said. "It's a good step for the fire district to help our citizens, and we're going to have better fire protection because of it."

Paula Horton: 582-1556; phorton@tricityherald.com