Edmonds, FD 1 officials meet face-to-face about fire service merger

 Here’s a more detailed summary of last night’s meeting between the Edmonds City Council and Snohomish Fire District 1 Commissioners, which included a wide-ranging discussion about merging fire services.

Fire District 1 Chief Ed Widdis started the meeting with a presentation on the district’s organizational structure and staffing.  Fire District 1 is based in Everett and includes eight fire stations serving 36 square miles. In addition to serving unincorporated areas, the District provides contracted fire services to the cities of Mountlake Terrace and Brier.

In addition to uniformed staff (firefighters, medics, emergency medical technicians,and chiefs/assistants) at each station and at administrative headquarters, the district also has a civilian staff that includes one public information officer and two public education staff. Many of those employees attended last night’s meeting and were introduced to the audience. A particular point of pride for District 1, Widdis said, is its focus on public education efforts, including fire prevention, bike helmet and car seat safety seminars. The Fire District also offers comprehensive training opportunities for its firefighters on-site, including a new training tower that is being dedicated this Saturday, Oct. 17.

After his presentation, Chief Widdis and Edmonds Fire Chief Thomas Tomberg took questions from councilmembers, and councilmembers and commissioners engaged in serious dialogue about the details of the contract proposal. In addition, the president of the local firefighters union offered his perspective on the contract and why union members support it.

The main points include the following:

The value of a regional approach to fire service. Both Fire District I and Edmonds Fire Department officials agreed that having Fire District 1 provide service to Edmonds would improve overall fire service regionally by allowing staffing and other resources to be spread more uniformly throughout the fire stations. For example, a crew from one station can be sent to staff another station when personnel are called away to an emergency. In addition, other decisions — from where to locate a new fire station to methods for improving response times — can be made based on what is best for the entire region, rather than for one city. “Regional planning always trumps city planning, where parochial interests prevail,” said Edmonds Chief Tomberg.

The importance of funding stability. Tim Hoover, president of the Edmonds Firefighters Union Local 1828, noted that union members voted unanimously to support the agreement, which would result in firefighters becoming Fire District 1 employees. Edmonds firefighters and paramedics are proud of the work they do in Edmonds, and they appreciate the support they have received over the years from citizens, Hoover said. However, it has been an ongoing struggle for the city to fund fire services, and that has taken its toll on firefighter morale. Hoover said that just 30 percent of Edmonds’ fire service budget comes from the city’s general fund, with 70 percent coming from levies and fees, such as emergency medical service transport fees. In most other cities, the reverse is true. “Every year for the past 12 years, someone talks about closing a fire station or cutting our service levels,” Hoover said. “We are tired of having to fight tooth and nail at every budget cycle to maintain our levels of service.”

The need to determine how much money would be saved through the contract proposal. Councilmember Steve Bernheim reminded the council that the impetus for the original discussion to sell the fire department was to save money rather than improve service, which he believes is already of high quality. “I’m inclined to preserve the local control over these essential services, even if it costs a little more,” Bernheim said. Council President D.J. Wilson added that the council needs some additional time to work with city staff and pencil out the numbers, to make sure everyone is clear about the actual costs — and cost savings — involved in the contract as proposed, and what effect that will have on the city’s estimated $7-million budget deficit. At one point, Wilson looked at Fire District Commission Chair Jim Kenny and asked, “If we can’t make the financial numbers work on our side, are you willing to negotiate with us until it does work?” Kenny replied that the district is certainly willing to continue negotiating, “but there are no hard feelings if it doesn’t work out.”

The next steps: City staff is continuing to crunch the numbers, and will present those to the council by the end of this week. A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for next Tuesday’s (Oct. 20) council meeting; more details will be reported here as they become available. Meanwhile, you can review the background information here. You can also catch a rebroadcast of last night’s meeting on Comcast channel 21 and Verizon channel 39 at 7 a.m., noon and 7 p.m. daily.

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