Sammamish council delays action on leaving EFR

September 27, 2012

By Caleb Heeringa

Sammamish will be sticking around while Eastside Fire & Rescue takes a long look in the mirror in the coming months.

On the day of its self-imposed Sept. 17 deadline for determining the future of the city’s fire service, the Sammamish City Council unanimously approved giving it until July 1, 2013 to work things out with EFR. With the interlocal agreement that underpins the agency due to expire at the end of 2014, the agency’s partners – Sammamish, Issaquah, North Bend and King County Fire Districts 10 and 38 – are in the midst of a broad review of the way it does business.

After years of disagreements between Sammamish and other partners about funding and governance issues, City Manager Ben Yazici said he was satisfied that a solution was within reach. A consultant’s study earlier this year recommended that Sammamish withdraw from EFR’s governing board and sign a contract for fire service – forgoing its influence in the agency’s decision making but locking in a predictable annual price.

Yazici had met with partners and the EFR administration in recent months and told the council he was confident they had hammered out common ground on several of Sammamish’s qualms. Namely they’d addressed the retention of individual partner’s ability to veto the addition of other members and changing how the agency funds the replacement of vehicles and the repair of fire stations.

EFR Chief Lee Soptich shared Yazici’s optimism.

“I think people feel good about the direction this thing is going,” he said.

But all parties are aware of the potential sticking points if the current partners are to stay together past 2014. Sammamish’s biggest complaint – an assessed value-based funding model that leads to city taxpayers funding a disproportionate amount of two fire stations – will be on the table in the coming months, despite past reticence from several partners to change it. Sammamish funds 62 percent of Station 83, on Issaquah-Pine Lake Road, though it only produces 31 percent of the calls to which the station responds.

“I’m not sure I’d say I’m confident, but I’m optimistic,” said Sammamish City Councilman Don Gerend. “I’m a ‘glass half full’ kind of guy.”

Mayor Tom Odell said he was hopeful that a breakthrough may come in the form of another facet of the agency under review in the coming months – it’s “service delivery model.” Neither Odell nor Soptich are sure of the specifics, but say the partners will be considering changing which stations respond to which areas and whether it makes sense to have higher staffing at some stations than others.

“Right now we have nine stations staffed with a minimum of three people,” Soptich said. “What about seven staffed with three and two staffed with five? I don’t fear this kind of discussion – I think it’s healthy.”

Partners have, in the past, considered staffing two emergency medical technicians in an SUV that would be based around Providence Point, a retirement community in Issaquah, which produces a high number of medical calls for crews at Station 83. Issaquah is responsible for 46 percent of the calls from that station but only pays for 8 percent of its annual bill due to the assessed value-based funding model.

Craig Hooper, president of firefighter union IAFF 2878, said the union is willing to listen to new ideas for how to staff and dispatch stations, but firefighters are skeptical of the idea of two-person crews. While two people can handle many basic medical calls, they’ll be shorthanded in the event of more major calls like motor vehicle accidents or a structure fire. State law forbids a two-person fire crew from entering a burning building until a third firefighter arrives.

“Anything less (than a three-person crew) is unacceptable to us,” Hooper said. “You never know what the next call you’re going to go on is going to be – it could be a stubbed toe or an amputated leg.”

Hooper said he was glad to see Sammamish at the table with other partners and attempting to find a solution that will keep EFR together past 2014. Though Odell has prefaced nearly every discussion about fire service with praise and appreciation for current EFR firefighters, Hooper said many fear Sammamish – which constitutes about 29 percent of EFR’s operating budget – leaving the agency would put their jobs in question.

“When the rubber hits the road, a lot of people in the rank and file wonder about the effect if Sammamish decided to look at another alternative,” he said.

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