Sammamish studies starting its own fire department
July 21, 2013
By Ari Cetron
New: July 21, 11:16 a.m.
After years of simmering tensions with Eastside Fire & Rescue, the city of Sammamish commissioned a study to find the cost of starting its own fire department.
The answer: about $6 million. In 2013, Sammamish paid $6.04 million to get fire service from EFR.
City Council members were quick to point out during a July 15 meeting that there may be less expensive ways to run their own department, including relocating and possibly shrinking a fire station.
Sammamish officials have long been dissatisfied with the funding formula used by EFR. Since the funding is based on property values instead of call volume, city leaders have said Sammamish pays a disproportionately high share. They argue the city is effectively subsidizing fire service for other members of EFR, notably the cities of Issaquah and North Bend.
The members of EFR, which also include fire districts 10 and 38, had tried to establish a new formula for fire service that accounted for call volume as a portion of each member’s cost. Under that model, Sammamish and Fire District 10 would have paid less while the other partners would pay more.
The plan was rejected – even by District 10, and Sammamish commissioned its own report to study the costs involved in starting its own department.
At the July 15 meeting, Peter Moy of the FCS Group, which conducted the study, presented his findings.
His estimate of about $6 million, however, had some cost assumptions the City Council is considering eliminating.
One large component is battalion chiefs. The consultant estimate included battalion chiefs, but the council questioned if the city, which has relatively few major fires, would need the positions.
EFR’s vehicles pose another issue to consider. According to Mike Sauerwein, the city’s administrative services director, Sammamish has the title to about 40 to 50 percent of EFR’s vehicles.
The city would likely be able to keep that equipment and either sell or lease the pieces it doesn’t need back to EFR, said Mayor Tom Odell.
“We probably have more than enough equipment,” Odell said.
The largest potential change would be the status of Station 83. The fire station is located near Sunny Hills Elementary and the edge of the city limits. About 70 percent of the calls from that station go to either the Providence Point neighborhood in Issaquah or Klahanie in Fire District 10.
“The location of that station may not be the best,” said City Manager Ben Yazici.
Yazici said the city had informal discussions with both of those other entities, asking if they would be willing to pay Sammamish for the services provided by that station. Representatives from both groups rejected the offer, Yazici said.
Council members raised the idea of closing that station and either re-opening it in a different location, opening a smaller version in a different location, or maybe just closing it.
“We’ll be looking at a realignment of stations,” said Deputy Mayor Ramiro Valderrama.
Part of any realignment hinges on the Klahanie neighborhood. A February vote may determine if the area will be annexed into Issaquah. If it is not, Sammamish has indicated interest in annexing the area. If Sammamish takes on Klahanie, it might make more sense to leave Station 83 where it is.
That issue is complicated by other timing considerations. Sammamish must decide by the end of this year if it will continue to stay in EFR or leave the partnership. If it decides to leave, it will remain in EFR for 2014, giving it a year to form its own department.
“You are going to have to make hires in 2014 if you want to be operational,” Moy said.
Meanwhile, Sammamish is still considering staying in EFR. City Council members will continue to talk with EFR officials about remaining in that agency. The EFR partners have hired a consultant to moderate discussions with an eye toward preserving the agency.
“I think, at this point, we need to keep going down both of these bunny trails,” Odell said.
Moy will continue his study of options and costs. His firm will study possible impacts on response times, and possible locations for Station 83 if it were to move. He’ll analyze just what equipment Sammamish has and would need, and look at one-time costs for starting its own department. He’ll also look at other city staffing costs, which might be impacted, such as information technology and human resources. The results of that study will come to the council in the fall.
Union wants a say
Firefighter Dave Augustine, representing Sammamish firefighters, spoke during the public testimony portion of the meeting. He noted that if the city were to form its own department, there is already a core of professionals who have experience serving Sammamish.
“I represent the 30 to 40 firefighters you want,” Augustine told the council.
He said that he was authorized to help the city pay for a study, and would like an opportunity for the firefighters to give input.
Any cost savings the city realized would likely come from personnel costs, Augustine said. Either there would be fewer firefighters or the city would pay them less. In the latter option, he said, the city would likely get less experienced firefighters.
“Either way, it’s a service reduction,” he said.