Fire service contract draws crowd to council chambers; 2017 city budget approved

A crowd of firefighters and citizens listens to testimony during a public hearing on the draft contract amendment.
A crowd of firefighters and citizens listens to testimony during a public hearing on the draft contract amendment.

The Edmonds City Council Tuesday night took a closer look at a proposal by Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling to change the staffing model for fire and paramedic services at the three fire stations serving the City of Edmonds — and also heard opinions from firefighters and citizens who showed up to testify during a public hearing on the plan.

The council also unanimously approved the 2017 city budget, which was amended to include a cost-of-living increase for the mayor and also includes several other items passed during earlier meetings, including a part-time parking enforcement officer, a school resource officer at Edmonds-Woodway High School, lighting at Pine Street and Highway 104, and pedestrian safety training.

City and fire district officials have been negotiating a new Fire District 1 contract for the past several months, based on a provision in the 20-year agreement that allows it to be revisited after five years. Leading the negotiating team were City Attorney Jeff Taraday and City Finance Director Scott James, with assistance from Stephen Knight of fire and emergency medical services consulting firm Fitch & Associates.

Taraday led a presentation on the contract draft Tuesday night, stressing that it was an amendment being submitted by Mayor Dave Earling to the existing city-fire district interlocal agreement — and one that the city council was free to modify or reject.

As we reported in our earlier story here, staffing at all three Edmonds fire stations now looks like this: Fire stations 16 (on 196th Street Southwest) and 20 (in Esperance) have a captain plus two firefighters who also have emergency medical technician (EMT) training for basic life support (BLS) situations. Station 17 in downtown Edmonds has a captain and two firefighters/EMTs, plus two paramedics on staff around the clock. Those paramedics are sent to all calls throughout Edmonds – regardless of location – that require advanced life support (ALS) services that only they can provide.

The contract amendment suggests reducing the total staffing from 11 personnel to nine as a way to both save money and increase efficiencies at the fire stations, which according to a consultant study have relatively low call volume. That idea drew both local residents and firefighters to the podium Tuesday night to protest what they described as a 20 percent staff reduction that will jeopardize public safety.

“You currently have superior service, with a 64 percent heart attack survival rate — one of the highest in the nation,” said Edmonds resident Laura Johnson. “Why would you risk that?”

Fire District 1 firefighter A.J. Johnson said he disagrees with the city’s assessment that the draft plan will increase service. “In the last six years, the population of Edmonds has increased and so has the call volume,” Johnson said. “Why would now be the time to cut public safety services?”

“We are not against single medic staffing,” Johnson said. What we are against is dropping staffing from 11 to nine.”

Susanna Martini, who came to the podium in her electric wheelchair, said she is the mother of a 9-year-old daughter and relies on both fire and police personnel to help her in times of trouble.

State Rep. Strom Peterson offers his comments.
State Rep. Strom Peterson offers his comments.

Also making an appearance was former Edmonds City Councilmember and current State Rep. Strom Peterson, who noted that he was on the council in 2009 that decided to end city fire services and instead contract with Fire District 1. A main priority at that time was ensuring that citizens had the same high level of service that they received under the city fire department, Peterson said. “To go from 11 to nine is a reduction in service,” he added.

Speaking in favor of the mayor’s amendment was Edmonds resident Brian Borofka, who said he believes it provides “a precautionary approach that provides an adequate level of service.”

In Taraday’s council presentation Tuesday night, he explained that one of the questions that prompted the city to see if service improvements could be made was, “What if two ALS (advanced life support) calls occur at the same time, under the status quo?” With both paramedics serving on one unit at Station 17, “We’d be relying on other jurisdictions essentially to provide us with paramedic service. It just takes one call to basically wipe out our paramedic capability,” Taraday said.

Another question the city looked at was, how busy are the Edmonds fire stations under the status quo. Taraday shared a chart, included in the Fitch & Associates report to the City of Edmonds, that measured the unit hour utilization for service at the three Edmonds stations.

unit-hour-utilizations-per-unit

The threshold established by the International Association of Firefighters is 0.30, Taraday said, with a recommendation that fire and EMS service doesn’t exceed a .30 utilization rate. “We are basically at .10 or lower, which is basically a way of saying that our current fire stations are not that busy,” he said.

Taraday added the analysis was “not meant to be criticism of the fire district or the firefighters. They do a great job. This is about whether we just have frankly more than we really need at this time. This would seem to indicate that we have some excess capacity.”

In the draft interlocal agreement, the city has placed a .250 unit utilization threshold as a “negotiation threshold” for when the contract could be revisited, Taraday noted. “We assume that over time the population will continue to growth, that call volumes will continue to increase and eventually we’ll get to a point where we do need to hire or do something to add service.”

Why the focus on adding more paramedic capability? Research by Fitch and Associates indicates that 30 percent of the calls coming into Fire District 1 are for advanced life support incidents, “and we felt that the city would be better served by adding a paramedic capability that we don’t have today,” Taraday said.

Taraday also discussed $1.36 million savings the city would realize in 2017 alone from the moving from from 11 to nine fire personnel. The reason why that’s important, he said, is that the fire district has been subsidizing a portion of the contract cost that used to be paid by the Town of Woodway until 2014, when it instead entered into a contract with the City of Shoreline Fire Department.

Under the original interlocal agreement, the cost of operating the three stations was planned to be split under a formula that had Edmonds paying 77.79 percent of contract costs, the Town of Woodway paying 9.13 percent and Esperance, essentially part of Fire District 1 because it’s unincorporated, paying 13.08 percent.

Edmonds could take the position that Woodway’s leaving is not the city’s problem “and stand on the contract rights you have today for has long as you can,” Taraday said. In doing so, the city runs the risk that the fire district could terminate the contract (which either side can do with two years’ notice), leaving Edmonds in a weaker negotiating position later, he said.

“The fire district leadership team that we’ve been negotiating with has made it pretty clear to our negotiating team that the current arrangement of 77.79 percent is not sustainable for the fire district and not acceptable going forward,” Taraday said.

As a potential way of making up some of that lost revenue, the draft contract includes a provision that allows the City of Edmonds to negotiate directly with the Town of Woodway to subcontract with Edmonds for fire services. That is not an immediate solution, however, since Woodway would also have to give two years’ notice to get out of its Shoreline contract, Taraday said.

Which brought the discussion back to how to save money in the short term. The new contract proposes the adding a third paramedic to join the two paramedics currently on duty and then reallocating one of the paramedics to each of the city’s fire stations, so they can better respond geographically to advanced life support situations throughout the city. Reducing the overall staffing will save the city nearly $1.4 million yearly. (The estimated Fire District contract payment for 2017 is $7,427,818.)

Following public testimony, councilmembers had an opportunity to ask questions and weigh in with their opinions. The discussion focused on whether there were other ways to offset the lost Woodway revenue and the pros and cons of simply maintaining the existing contract.

Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling proposed that the councilmembers take a week to review the proposal and come back next week with suggestions for improvement.

The council also:

Retiring Verdant Superintendent Carl Zapora speaks to the councll as Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling looks on.
Retiring Verdant Superintendent Carl Zapora speaks to the councll as Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling looks on.

–  Honored retiring Verdant Health Commission Superintendent Carl Zapora for his years of service to the community.

– Appointed Donnie Griffin to the Edmonds Diversity Commission

– Heard the annual report from long-time city prosecutor Zachor and Thomas and unanimously approved a two-year contract for services. The contract includes an additional payment of $50,000 in 2017 and $58,000 in 2018 to cover increased caseloads and related expenses.

– Approved by a 6-1 vote amendments to the 2016 Comprehensive Plan (Council President Kristiana Johnson voting no).

– Approved the 2017 City of Edmonds Legislative Agenda. You can see that here.

– Approved the 4th Quarter Budget Amendment Ordinance

– Heard a presentation on bids for the Veteran’s Plaza Project. A full report with final costs will be presented at next week’s council meeting.

– A discussion on parliamentary procedure related to the Shoreline Master Program was delayed to a future meeting.

— By Teresa Wippel

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *