Report: Edmonds fire, EMS services can improve performance, reduce costs

Fire station 17
Fire Station 17 in downtown Edmonds

A long-awaited Fitch and Associates report on City of Edmonds fire and emergency medical services has been released, and it suggests that the city move to a performance-based contract with Snohomish County Fire District 1, with a focus on making services more cost-effective and efficient.

The City of Edmonds turned over fire service operations to Snohomish County Fire District 1 in 2009. 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 20-year agreement 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.

Saving money was the primary driving force behind the city’s decision 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 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.

Fitch and Associates gave a preliminary report of its findings at the Feb. 23 Edmonds City Council meeting. The written report, issued Friday and available for review here, provides more detail, along with four formal recommendations for the city, which include:

1. Changing to a performance-based contract rather than a “prescriptive” one, in which the city “describes the intended performance rather than prescribing the resources allocated to the performance.”
2. Including in the new contract an expectation that the Fire District meet “best practice” on turnout time, which measures how long it takes from the time a call is dispatched until firefighters leave the station in required protective gear. The Fitch report defines best practice for turnout time as 90 seconds, 90 percent of the time “within a reasonable improvement period.” Fire District 1’s annual report to the city council for 2015 showed a turnout time in 2015 that averaged 2 minutes, 30 seconds in 90 percent of calls. Former Fire District 1 Fire Chief Ed Widdis said in an interview earlier this year that he doesn’t believe that a 90-second turnout time is realistic. “I don’t know an agency that does it,” Widdis said.
3. Through a collaborative city-fire district process, defining and adopting fire and EMS service standards within the City of Edmonds. Specifically, the report encourages both organizations to adjust performance standards “that historically have not been obtainable and are not expected to be obtainable or, where possible, develop a plan to meet the current standards.”

4. Establishing performance standards for total response time that “includes all time elements of dispatch, turnout, and travel time.”

In announcing the release of the written report Friday, the City of Edmonds noted that the study found that Fire District 1 “is a high-quality, innovative and professionally managed fire and emergency service organization and is providing efficient and effective services to the community.”

However, the Fitch study did identify “the potential for greater efficiencies and potential cost savings” in three alternative scenarios. These alternatives would “maintain or improve fire and emergency medical service levels, yet redeploy resources in ways that would also reduce costs, ranging from $500,000 to $1,500,000 in annual savings,” the city announcement said.

According to the Fitch report, 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 calls for moving fire service capability away from Station 17 altogether, and instead staffing that station only with two dedicated paramedics. That move could save Edmonds $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, city officials said.

“The alternatives offered for our consideration are well thought-out and present real opportunities to enhance fire and medical services in Edmonds as well as reduce costs,” said Mayor Dave Earling.

The report will be discussed at future Edmonds City Council meetings and there will also be opportunities for public feedback. You can read the full report here.

  1. The City of Edmonds ran its own Fire/EMS department for 100 years but had no one on staff competent enough to perform a management analysis because of a lack of experience with Fire/EMS services? Sad. It’s not that complicated. It’s nice to see the City considering performance-based metrics for judging effective delivery of FD1 local government services, I wonder when they will begin applying that logic to funding their own operations? What’s the best practice timeframe for each type of development permit issuance? Nah, it will never happen, what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander. After all, they simply don’t have the resources… LOL

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