Discussion begins on future of fire service in Edmonds

Steven Knight of Fitch and Associates makes his presentation to the Edmonds City Council. City Clerk Scott Passey is at the left and City Attorney Jeff Taraday is at the right.
Steven Knight of Fitch & Associates makes his presentation to the Edmonds City Council Tuesday night.

The future of fire service in Edmonds is going to be a hot topic in the city once again.

Six years ago, the City of Edmonds turned over operation of its fire service to Snohomish County Fire District 1. All city fire employees went to work for the Fire District, which provides fire and emergency medical services (EMS) to nearly 200,000 residents in southwest Snohomish County — not only in Edmonds but also in Brier, Mountlake Terrace and unincorporated communities. The City of Lynnwood still maintains its own fire service.

The city’s 20-year agreement with Fire District 1 contains a contract provision that allows the city and the fire district to revisit it after five years. In January 2015, city officials signaled their intent to do so, following what they say was an unexpectedly large $1.6 million invoice from Fire District 1 that covered retroactive wage increases for the district’s firefighters and paramedics.

That review started in earnest at the Feb. 23 Edmonds City Council meeting, when Steven Knight from fire and EMS consulting firm Fitch and Associates presented an analysis of the city’s current arrangement, as well as three alternatives for restructuring the contract. (You can view the entire presentation here.)

“The city has been receiving very high quality services from Fire District 1,” Knight said, noting that the arrangement has resulted in approximately $900,000 in annual savings to Edmonds since the contract was implemented in 2010.

Saving money was the primary driving force behind the city’s decision in 2009 to turn its fire and EMS services over to Fire District 1, and to sell all of its fire apparatus (engine, aid cars and equipment) to the district. Edmonds did retain ownership of the fire stations and land, and also kept the emergency medical services transportation fees the city charges to residents when they need emergency transport.

Now, with the contract up for renegotiation, the City of Edmonds is looking at how to further reduce costs and improve efficiency. The city hired Fitch & Associates at a cost of $55,000 because Edmonds has limited expertise in providing fire and EMS services, Finance Director Scott James told the council Tuesday night.

During his presentation, Knight offered three possible alternatives for restructuring the current contract, all with varying staffing impacts and cost savings. Both Knight and city officials were clear that Tuesday night’s oral presentation was just a starting point in the discussion; Fitch & Associates will be providing a written report of its analysis to the city in the next two weeks, and that will be followed by further city council exploration and opportunities for public feedback.

“It’s having opportunity to say, ‘If we were going to do a fire station mix now, what would it look like, what kinds of services do we need in the various areas,'” Mayor Dave Earling said in an interview Wednesday.

While cost was the driving factor in the city council’s 2009 decision to contract with Fire District 1, another high priority at the time was ensuring that residents continued to receive the same level of fire and EMS service that had been provided through the Edmonds Fire Department.

Fire station 17
Fire station 17 on 6th Avenue North in downtown Edmonds. (Fire station photos courtesy Fire District 1)

As a result, the contract was structured to provide two dedicated paramedics at downtown Edmonds’ Station 17, available to respond to calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s in addition to the one captain and two firefighters at Station 17, for a total of five personnel on duty at all times. The other two Edmonds-area fire stations (Station 16 on 196th Street Southwest and Station 20 on 88th Avenue West in Esperance) each have one captain and two firefighters, for a total of three at each station at all times.

Firefighters also serve as emergency medical technicians (EMTs), and can provide basic life support services in case of medical emergencies. On the other hand, paramedics, like those now at Station 17, have advanced life support training and can also administer drugs. It’s a distinction that can be important in a city like Edmonds, where 19 percent of the population is 65 or older.

In fact, Knight’s analysis Tuesday night pointed to the fact that EMS calls make up nearly 86 percent of Fire District 1’s overall call volume in Edmonds, with fire calls at just 10 percent. Given that statistic, one of the alternatives proposed Tuesday night calls for moving fire service capability away from Station 17 altogether, and instead staffing that station only with two dedicated paramedics.

“The fire volumes are so low…they are thinking there is excess capacity and we’re paying more for that excess capacity,” James said in an interview Wednesday morning. “According to this (Fitch analysis), we are paying almost $1.5 million more for that extra call volume.”

By moving to a paramedic-only model for Station 17, city officials say, Edmonds could save $1.5 million annually — money that could be used to fund other important city services like street repair or additional police officers, or to shore up the city’s reserve fund.

The Edmonds economy is currently in good shape “but that is not going to last long term,” James said. “We know that our financial picture is not always going to be that healthy; we have to start thinking about priorities. How do we spend our bucket of dollars?”

Fire station 16 on 196th Street Southwest
Fire station 16 on 196th Street Southwest

The other two alternatives proposed by Fitch & Associates include cost savings too — ranging from $500,000 to $1 million. All three options involve reductions in personnel achieved by cross-staffing all three Edmonds-area stations with paramedics. James said this cross-staffing would actually benefit citizens served by the other two Edmonds fire stations, because it would ensure that a paramedic would be part of the three-person engine teams at each station. (Currently those stations have EMTs but no paramedics and as a result can’t provide advanced life support services.)

You can see a summary of the current configuration as well as the proposed alternatives in the chart below. We have also summarized the three alternatives at the end of this story.

Summary of alternativesWhile Alternative 3 saves the most money, one consequence would be a projected two-minute increase in fire service response time — from six minutes to eight minutes — the result of having no fire trucks or fire response personnel at Station 17. However, the Fitch & Associates report points to a possible solution: reducing the turnout time — which measures how long it takes from the time a call is dispatched until firefighters leave the station in required protective gear. Fire District 1’s annual report to the city council last year showed a turnout time in 2014 that averaged 2 minutes, 36 seconds in 92.1 percent of calls.

Knight said that “best practice” for fire service turnout times is between 60 and 90 seconds.

With that in mind, city officials are weighing the idea of having performance-based standards, such as improved turnout time, written into the contract, James said.

Whether that turnout time reduction is actually achievable appears to be up for debate and discussion.

“Our understanding from talking to him (Knight), is that standard is not some type of idealized (one) that is invented in an ivory tower but not actually practiced on earth,” City Attorney Jeff Taraday said in an interview Wednesday. “This standard is actually achieved by real fire departments in the United States of America. We wouldn’t be proposing that if we didn’t believe that it was something that could be achieved.”

However, Fire District 1 Fire Chief Ed Widdis doesn’t believe that a 60- to 90-second turnout time is realistic. “I don’t know an agency that does it,” Widdis said.

Fire station 20 in Esperance.
Fire station 20 in Esperance.

That said, Widdis said Fire District 1 is committed to reducing turnout times, and he believes that two initiatives will help achieve that goal. First, the countywide New World software and records management system — launched in late October 2015 — will make dispatching calls more accurate, in terms of when fire and EMS units are leaving the station. Second, the Fire District has invested in a new $145,000 software system that allows for computer-generated dispatch that goes directly to each fire station. This avoids the delay of humans entering information, Widdis said.

Thad Hovis, president of local firefighters union IAFF 1828, said the firefighters he represents “have great concern” over the proposed alternatives.

“When we look at cost savings, we need to remember that what we save on staffing cuts, may simply be shifted onto citizens as unacceptable costs: slower response times, preventable injuries and deaths or property damage,” Hovis said in a statement to My Edmonds News Thursday. “Cost savings cannot always be measured in dollars when human lives are at stake.”

After hearing Knight’s presentation Tuesday night, Councilmember Mike Nelson sounded unconvinced. “Having a fire engine take two minutes longer to respond to a burning house sounds more risky, not less,” Nelson said.” Let’s make sure that we do not risk safety for efficiency.”

Here is a summary of all three alternatives discussed Tuesday night:

Alternative 1
1 captain
1 firefighter EMT
1 paramedic

This option would upgrade one of the Firefighter/EMTs to a paramedic/firefighter at each station. This upgrade is made possible by reallocating half of the Station 17 paramedic shift to stations 16 and 20.

Alternative 1 would provide an estimated annual savings of $530,000.

Alternative 2
1 captain
1 firefighter/EMT
1 paramedic

This configuration is how Fire District 1 provides service to most other fire stations in its system (outside of Edmonds).

Alternative 2 would provide an estimated annual savings of $1,038,000.

Alternative 3
1 captain
1 firefighter
1 paramedic
at Stations 20 and 16
2 dedicated 24/7 paramedics ONLY at Fire Station 17.

No fire service would be provided from Fire Station 17; this would be handled by other stations.

Alternative 3 would provide an estimated annual savings of $1,455,000.

— By Teresa Wippel

  1. It is gratifying to note that the consultants verified the substantial cost savings for the city as a result of the contract with FD1. More than one city council member had questioned that those savings actually were valid. I never had any doubt that the savings would be achieved.

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