Union hot over proposed change in fire station staffing; public hearing Dec. 6

Under the city's revised Fire District 1 contract, paramedics would be spread across all three fire stations rather than only at Fire Station 17 in downtown Edmonds.
Under the City of Edmonds’ proposed contract with Fire District 1, paramedics would be spread across all three fire stations rather than being based at Fire Station 17 in downtown Edmonds.

A proposal to change the staffing model for fire and paramedic services at the three fire stations serving the City of Edmonds is drawing heat from the local firefighters union, although the city says the change will result in more efficient operations while continuing to protect public safety.

The public will have an opportunity to comment during a public hearing on the draft City of Edmonds contract with Snohomish County Fire District 1 during Tuesday night’s city council meeting, which begins at an earlier-than-usual time of 6 p.m. in the council chambers. (For those who want to testify on this item, however, the fire services contract comes later on in the agenda.)

Edmond has been contracting with Fire District 1 since 2010. City and fire district officials have been negotiating a new contract for the past several months, based on a provision in the 20-year agreement that allows it to be revisited after five years. In January 2015, city officials signaled their intent to do just that, 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.

City Finance Director Scott James
City Finance Director Scott James

City of Edmonds Finance Director Scott James said that the draft 2017 contract is structured to increase flexibility for how the fire stations are staffed, and also follows the recommendations contained in a consultant report received earlier this year from fire and emergency medical services consulting firm Fitch & Associates. That report noted that emergency medical service (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, the draft contract includes a provision that changes the staffing at the three Edmonds stations – Station 17 downtown, Station 16 on 196th Street Southwest and Station 20 in unincorporated Esperance – so that all those stations will have a dedicated paramedic on duty 24 hours a day to better respond to advanced life support (ALS) situations citywide, James said.

Currently, staffing at all three stations looks like this: Fire stations 16 and 20 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 services that only they can provide.

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, James said. The proposal also reduces the staffing overall, from 11 firefighters to nine on duty at any one time in Edmonds, which will save the city nearly $1.4 million yearly. (The estimated Fire District contract payment for 2017 is $7,427,818.)

Here’s how the current staffing compares to the proposed configuration across the three stations:

3 Captains
6 Firefighter/EMTs
2 Paramedics
11 on duty 24/7

3 Captains
3 Firefighter/EMTs
3 Paramedics
9 on duty 24/7

However, firefighters union officials question why the city wants to change the staffing model, given that Fire District 1’s firefighters and paramedics “have one of the highest cardiac arrest survival rates in the world at 64 percent.”

In a statement titled “City Officials Playing With Fire,” Tim Hoover of International Association of Firefighters Local 1828 called on citizens to “stand with us” in opposing the proposed staffing adjustment.

“In this scenario, if there were three trash fires occurring at the same time, there would not be a paramedic unit available to respond from within the city limits. Alternatively, during a call for advanced life support, the solo paramedic on scene would need to request assistance for another paramedic, putting two out of the three fire stations out of service and unavailable for any other medical or fire call in the city,” he said.

“But what is most confusing is that these cuts are being proposed at a time when the city is experiencing record revenue over the past several years and over $129 million in increased assessed value from new home and commercial construction between 2014-2017,” Hoover added. “At the same time, the city is adding multiple staff positions and significant IT improvements. “

In response, James said the union’s example of three simultaneous trash fires, while possible, is highly unlikely and “financially unfeasible” to provide staffing for.

“We could have a train derailment and it could be an oil train full of oil,” James said. “We don’t have the resources to address that. Should we staff up for it? Of course not. That would be ridiculous having a couple of hundred people standing by day and day out just because we have that one contingency. We have limited dollars.”

While it’s true the city will save money through the new contract, James said the proposed staffing arrangement does increase the city’s ability to better respond to the higher EMS demand. In addition to the proposed staffing changes, the new contract includes several scenarios that would trigger a closer look by both the city and the fire district at the staffing levels to see if future adjustments need to be made.

These triggers include:

– If the unit utilization factor, the time required for fire and EMS calls, exceeds a factor of .25 – or 6 hours out of a 24-hour period. This provision recognizes that fire station employees, who work 24-hour shifts, also require time for other duties, such as conducting fire inspections, as well as eating and sleeping, James said. According to the Fitch & Associates report, this factor currently averages .10 – or 2.4 hours per day.

– If the neighboring unit utilization factor, which measures the reciprocal sharing arrangement among nearby cities to assist each other with fire and EMS services, falls out of balance based on a predetermined mathematical formula. The goal of this trigger, James said, is to answer the question: “Are we being fair in that reciprocal sharing arrangement?”

– If the transport balance factor – which covers the EMS fees received by Edmonds as well as nearby cities who may be providing mutual aid for Edmonds calls – is out of balance, also using a predetermined formula.

Under either of the first two scenarios, a 12-month monitoring period is triggered to determine if the situation is an anomaly or a pattern. Under the third scenario, involving EMS fees, a six-month review is required before any action is taken.

Providing a time frame for monitoring the situation means that officials can “see how this works before we tinker with it,” James said.

In terms of the unit utilization factor, after the 12-month review period, officials may end up renegotiating the levels of service provided in the contract, which could include “changes in the staffing mix and/or levels, such as adding another unit,” James said. “Also changing fire response plans and computer-aided dispatch or implementing other service changes.

“We aren’t committing to what those service changes are because we don’t know what the extenuating circumstances would be when we get to that .25,” James added. “And because we haven’t deployed this [staffing] model at each of the three stations, we really don’t know what that’s going to do.”

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

In addition to ensuring staffing flexibility, James said that the draft proposal includes language that reflects other future scenarios the city may be faced with for the duration of the Fire District 1 contract, which runs through 2030. For example, both the city and fire district acknowledge that none of the three Edmonds-owned fire stations is ideally located to serve the entire city. In fact, the contract states that the internal configuration of those stations “contributes to slower turnout times.

The fire district has indicated that the city could be better served with two fire stations in more centralized locations, and ”we wanted that flexibility,” James said. “Not that we are going there because there are no plans on any drawing board to go to two stations.“

The draft contract also addresses the topic of turnout times (the time it takes from the station receiving a call for service to leaving the station), noting that the fire district has adopted a standard of 2 minutes and 15 seconds on 90 percent of its calls. If that standard is not met in 2017, the contract language says, the district is required to provide the city with a report containing a list of possible measures to improve turnout time, along with the cost of each measure and how much time could be reduced by implementing it.

Another goal of the contract, James said, is to improve communication by ensuring that the fire district and city officials talk to each other regularly – by requiring regular reporting on various scenarios; quarterly meetings involving the mayor, at least one city councilmember and city staff; and also requiring notification by Sept. 1 of each year about any ongoing labor negotiations that may affect the fire district’s bill to the city for the upcoming year.

“We don’t want to get that surprise bill again,” James said. “We’re saying, ‘Give us your best guess.’”

Another aspect of the draft contract is a provision that allows the City of Edmonds to negotiate directly with the Town of Woodway to subcontract with Edmonds for fire services. Under the original 2010 contract, Woodway paid 9.13 percent of the total Fire District 1 bill, but it has since discontinued its arrangement with Fire District 1 and now contracts with the nearby City of Shoreline for fire services. Edmonds wanted to reserve the right to negotiate with Woodway for a future cost-sharing arrangement to again receive Fire District 1 services, James said.

You can see the complete council agenda item related to the Fire District 1 contract, including related attachments, here. The council chambers are located inside the Public Safety Complex, 250 5th Ave. N., in downtown Edmonds.

— By Teresa Wippel

  1. Thanks to Teresa and your team, once again, for the detailed reporting on important issues in our city. I particularly appreciate the detail on actual and current staffing plans, as well as the distribution of types of calls the department is addressing. It’s often too easy to make judgments on headlines alone, and this level of detail really helps unpack the full situation to see the city is making an effort to reconfigure services to better match the actual (rather than perceived) needs of our community.

    To this end, I’d be interested to see data from the city, FD1 or the union, showing how often the ‘3 trash fire’ or other potential breakdown points for service have occurred over the last 5 years, and how often they would have occurred if the new staffing level were in place over the past 5 years. I imagine this kind of data is kept in a database, and can be analyzed to see specifically if we are truly increasing our risks – or if change just makes it feel like we are increasing risks.

  2. Wondering why Mr Hoovers statement is not made available to read or why a majority of the comments for this story come from Mr James?

    1. I asked the firefighter’s union rep who sent the full statement to me if they would like me to run it as an op-ed or letter to the editor, as it was too long to run in the story. I have not yet heard back but am happy to do that if they request it.

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