Sammamish could save under new EFR funding plan

January 11, 2013

By Caleb Heeringa

New: Jan. 11, 10:18 a.m.

Sammamish could trim its fire service costs by between $156,000 and $314,000 a year if Eastside Fire & Rescue partners agree to a new funding model that reflects the amount of calls each jurisdiction produces.

But it remains to be seen whether other partners that make up the fire consortium – namely the cities of Issaquah and North Bend – would sign on to a new funding method that would substantially increase their fire bills in the name of maintaining the current incarnation of EFR past 2014.

A committee of elected officials and city staff from each partner met Dec. 20 to discuss the implications of using call load as a factor in determining how much to charge. The agency currently bases the yearly bill on the assessed value of property covered by each station; Sammamish officials have long complained that this unfairly charges them for stations that spend more of their time responding to the city of Issaquah and to Klahanie, which is covered by King County Fire District 10.

Committee members discussed using some sort of hybrid model – either 75 percent assessed value and 25 percent based on the amount of calls produced or a 50/50 split. Representatives for Issaquah and North Bend both pushed for the 75/25 split, while Sammamish leaders continue to advocate for a 50/50 split – something they’ve demanded since last year.

Making fire bills reflect the use of specific stations would raise Issaquah’s yearly contribution to the agency by approximately $246,000 under the 75/25 model and as much as $492,000 under the 50/50 split. North Bend would also see a rise in its fire bill – by approximately $76,000 under the 75/25 model and $151,000 under the 50/50 split.

If the agency were to change their model, attendees discussed phasing in the new model in 5 percent increments per year to help Issaquah and North Bend adjust to the changes.

The city councils and boards of commissioners of each partner would have to approve any changes to the funding model before reentering the interlocal agreement that underpins EFR. The committee meeting ended without any consensus on a next step.

Sammamish Mayor Tom Odell said the calculations confirm what he and others have suspected for years – that charging partners based on the value of their property doesn’t accurately reflect the amount each partner uses the fire service.

“I think it shows everybody, not just (Sammamish representatives), that there’s a problem out there that has not been addressed,” Odell said.

 

Other possible changes

While changes to the funding model that mean cost increases to North Bend and Issaquah could prove controversial, they went over reasonably well at the meeting compared to other changes to the way firefighters do their jobs.

Odell said he and other Sammamish representatives would like the agency to consider whether changing staffing levels could be cheaper and a more efficient use of resources.

Instead of the typical three-person minimum at every station, Odell suggested staffing some stations with two full-time firefighters while putting four at another station that sees more calls on the average day, for example.

“I think we need to put everything on the table and look at it fairly and without emotion,” Odell said. “We need to be analytical about this.”

The suggestion of a permanent two-person fire station was met with some skepticism from other board members, particularly those representing EFR’s rural fire districts.

“If I have a heart attack or my wife does, I want three guys showing up,” District 10 Commissioner Donald Smith said.

Jon Wiseman, president of the union that represents EFR firefighters, said moving any station down to two firefighters is a concern.

State law forbids a firefighter to enter a burning building until three responders are on scene. While many aid calls can be handled by two people, Wiseman said having a third person can be vital during some of the most serious medical emergencies.

For a patient that is in need of CPR, one person is needed to do chest compressions, another is needed to keep their airway open and a third is needed to ready the defibrillator, for example.

“People talk about two people on an aid call like it’s not a big deal, but when you roll up on a medical emergency, having that third person can be important,” Wiseman said.

Wiseman said the three-person minimum is generally considered an industry-wide standard for urban fire service, with departments in some other parts of the country striving to do one better and have four firefighters on hand at all times.

King County Fire District 27, which serves Fall City, saw its 2010 bid to join EFR fall short because it could not meet EFR’s three-person minimum staffing level without a subsidy from other partners.

“It’s hard to think about going back down to a two-person model when we’ve already achieved (a three-person minimum,)” Wiseman said.

 

Reporter Caleb Heeringa can be reached at 392-6434. ext. 247, or cheeringa@isspress.com.

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