With city council set to vote on fire staffing Tuesday, firefighters explain why they worry

A firefighter stands outside Madrona K-8 School following a fire in the building in March 2016. (My Edmonds News file photo)
A firefighter stands outside Madrona K-8 School following a fire in the building in March 2016. (My Edmonds News file photo)

With the Edmonds City Council scheduled to vote this Tuesday, Dec. 13 on whether to reduce fire station staffing as part of a contract amendment with Snohomish County Fire District 1, local firefighters union representatives are making the case that there are already too few firefighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians in Edmonds, and those cuts puts public safety at risk.

Firefighters representing the International Association of Firefighters Local 1828 also said the numbers that the city council is relying on to make that decision — contained in a report prepared by consulting firm Fitch & Associates — don’t accurately represent how fire staff spend their time when they are on calls, and make it seem that they are less busy than they are.

My Edmonds News sat down Friday with Tim Hoover, a firefighter/paramedic, and A.J. Johnson and Melissa Beard, firefighters/EMTs, to talk about the upcoming Edmonds City Council vote and the reasons behind the firefighters’ opposition to the proposed contract changes, especially as it relates to staffing the three fire stations that serve Edmonds residents.

Tim Hoover (Photo courtesy Washington State Council of Fire Fighters)
Tim Hoover (Photo courtesy Washington State Council of Fire Fighters)

“We believe that 12 people in the city of Edmonds is too few as it is,” Hoover said. National Fire Protection Association standards call for 15 firefighters on residential fires and 21 on commercial fires, he added, “and we’re not meeting those standards with 12 people here.”

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 between the city and the fire district that allows it to be revisited after five years. As a result of those negotiations, a contract amendment was presented last week to the council, followed by a public hearing that drew a full house of concerned firefighters and citizens.

From the firefighters’ perspective, the heart of the issue is this: It’s true that Edmonds can draw on “mutual aid” from nearby fire stations outside the city — such as Mountlake Terrace, Shoreline or Lynnwood — when needed to assist in firefighting and emergency medical services situations. But any reduction in staffing here will impact regional fire and aid response overall, as it means a smaller total pool of firefighters to respond to emergency situations.

“My fear is that we, as the providers, already know how the day goes now and how we run out of resources on a regular basis in the city,” said Hoover, who is currently stationed at Mariner Fire Station 11 but formerly worked in Edmonds. “And we know how often this will require outside paramedic units to come into the city to treat patients because the other three stations could be busy doing other things.”

Fire District 1 firefighter/EMT A.J. Johnson testifies at the Dec. 6 public hearing in city council chambers.
Fire District 1 firefighter/EMT A.J. Johnson testifies at the Dec. 6 public hearing in city council chambers.

Beard, an Edmonds resident who works out of Station 16 on 196th Street Southwest, and Johnson, who is stationed at Brier but sometimes fills in with Edmonds shifts, agreed it is often the case that staff at all three Edmonds stations are on call at the same time, requiring outside units to provide back-up.

“That’s happened three times in the past week,” Beard said.

“We’re not saying that there should be an endless number of people on duty,” Hoover added. “But it does happen pretty frequently.”

And in the firefighters’ opinion, one of the most vulnerable areas when those resources are stretched is the area closest to downtown Edmonds Fire Station 17, because it takes longer for neighboring stations to travel to downtown Edmonds.

“We can get resources to the rest of the city easier than we can down here,” Hoover said.

Hoover was working for the Edmonds Fire Department and president of its local union in 2009 when the Edmonds City Council voted to approve the Fire District 1 contract, which included selling the fire department’s fire appartus and transferring its employees to the fire district. (The city retained ownership of the fire stations and land.) While Edmonds firefighters supported the move due to city budget challenges that affected the fire department, Cook remembers the concerns of residents and councilmembers alike that firefighting levels of service remain the same under the Fire District 1 contract.

“We thought we could provide some cost containment by using a joint administration and having the level of service remain the same,” Hoover said. “And that’s why it specifically spelled out each position at each of the three fire stations because the city wanted to make sure that there wasn’t going to be a change or a reduction in the level of service after the contract went into place.”

That’s why Station 17 has two around-the-clock paramedics in addition to a captain and two firefighters/EMTs — the same number of staff it had when it was operated by the City of Edmonds.

That reasoning was reiterated by former Edmonds City Councilmember Strom Peterson, now serving in the Washington State House of Representatives, who testified at last week’s city council public hearing on the proposed contract amendment.

Peterson noted that he was on the city council when it decided in 2009 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 said.

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, which would save the city $1.36 million in 2017 alone, suggests reducing the total staffing from 11 personnel to nine as a way to both reduce costs and increase efficiencies at the fire stations. The firefighters’ union has been using a higher number for current station staffing — 12 rather than 11 — because they are also counting a battalion chief who is currently stationed at fire station 16. Having that battalion chief — who oversees all the captains at the fire stations and major incidents in the south part of Fire District 1 — stationed in Edmonds is an advantage because it provides extra staffing when needed in firefighting situations, the firefighters say.

City Finance Director Scott James, who has been part of the city’s negotiating team on the amended contract, said Saturday that the proposed contract does provide “for the same battalion response and services that we have been getting.”

You can see more on Hoover’s rationale for fire staffing, and what the ideal numbers are, in his earlier My Edmonds News commentary “How many firefighters does it take to save your life?” here.

The firefighters also pointed to a letter sent to the City of Edmonds in April by Snohomish Fire District 7 Commission Chair Roy Waugh, which warned against Edmonds staffing reductions that could impact nearby fire agencies including Fire District 7, which serves the City of Mill Creek as well as parts of unincorporated Snohomish County to the east.

“While the response of Fire District 7 units directly into Edmonds is low, the ‘ripple effect’ is what concerns us,” Waugh wrote. “This means that Fire District 7 will be called to assist in covering areas of closer units that have been dispatched into Edmonds. Fire agencies truly are a regional emergency services delivery system. Changes in the region impact all of us and the people we serve.” You can see the complete Fire District 7 letter here.

The firefighters interviewed Friday acknowledged the fact — stated in the Fitch & Associates report — that the work of staff at Edmonds-based fire stations is mostly focused on emergency medical service (EMS) rather than fire calls. And they also recognized the budget challenges placed on the City of Edmonds given that the Town of Woodway in 2014 decided to stop contracting with Fire District 1 and instead is receiving services from the City of Shoreline — meaning Edmonds has to pick up the tab for 9.13 percent of the contract costs formerly assigned to Woodway.

But the danger posed by fires remains, they said. “Whether Woodway is part of the contract or not, the fires still happen and they still burn as hot and as dangerous as before,” Hoover said. Downtown Edmonds, with its concentration of condos and other multi-family structures, plus the relative number of older buildings, poses a particular challenge and requires more labor-intensive firefighting capabilities, he added.

Firefighters also said they believe the staffing reductions would endanger the fire district’s 64 percent heart attack survival rate — one of the highest in the U.S. A total of 10 people are sent to calls related to these types of medical emergencies, with CPR being performed on a victim for an average of 45 minutes, Hoover said. One of the main reasons is because first responders have to take turns, rotating every two minutes, to perform chest compressions due to the physical exertion it requires. Staffing is also required for any associated medical interventions needed, as well as providing assistance to family members, they added.

The firefighters union does disagree with the unit hour utilization numbers included in the Fitch & Associates report, which measures how busy local fire stations are. During his presentation to the council last week, City Attorney Jeff Taraday — also on the city’s negotiating team — said the Fitch analysis indicates the “fire stations are not that busy,” based on the threshold established by the International Association of Firefighters, which is one of the reasons that the city has proposed staffing reductions.

Noting that “we all have our own consultants,” Hoover said that the firefighting experts he works with nationally question the accuracy of the Fitch analysis, adding that they don’t account for time that units are on the road, which is part of their work. “We can’t make sense of what those numbers actually are,” he added.

Firefighters also are concerned that some of the Edmonds City Councilmembers studying the contract proposal don’t have a clear understanding of just what firefighters’ jobs entail, and believe “when we aren’t a call, we aren’t doing anything, which isn’t the case,” Beard said. Each fire station gets a stack of fire inspections to perform each month, as every business and adult family home in the city must be inspected. Firefighters also spend time training, pulling hoses in multi-story buildings and parking garages, and participating in online EMS training at fire stations. And they must inspect equipment and vehicles daily to ensure they are in good working order.

The firefighters said they don’t have a problem with city’s proposal to redistribute paramedics, which provide advanced life support services, to the other two fire stations, since it will increase the responsiveness of paramedics to all parts of Edmonds. Their issue, simply, is to maintain current staffing levels.

During his council presentation, Taraday explained that the proposed contract includes a “negotiation threshold” — basically when the fire stations’ unit hour utilization exceeds a certain rate — that triggers a monitoring period, after which the contract could be revisited and possibly revised to add more staff.

While Hoover said “it’s smart” to include that type of measurement in the contract, he and other firefighters still worry that the staffing reductions pose a public safety risk. They also said they don’t believe the city has fully explored other options for reducing fire costs or increasing revenue to cover the income lost from Woodway’s contract departure, including possible cost-sharing with other cities or even a placing a public safety levy before voters.

“Let’s take a year and figure out what the problem is,” Johnson said. “There are other ways to do it besides cutting the service.”

— By Teresa Wippel

  1. Without knowing the entire background, I’m wondering if we might have been better off with our own Fire Department rather than turning over control to a department on which we have no representation or vote. Saving a few bucks is not as important as saving a few lives. I’m willing to pay taxes for services. Can we get our department back under our management (and finances)?

  2. The fire fighters response to the consultant’s report reminds of me of a saying we had when I worked for the federal government. That is, the “ivory tower” has no idea what the “worker bees” really do with their time. I was especially struck by the comment about the time on the road. One of my positions entailed driving from one contact to another. Management would refer cases and, based upon the contact, come up with how much time should have been spend during the entire day. Totally leaving out travel time. Which would come out with a lot of “wasted” time. And I didn’t have gear to pack and unpack at each contact or when returning to my place of work after a contact. The best boss I ever had was in the “ivory tower.” I was his assistant for nearly two years. His first order of business when he got his position was to send me to review every single position within the division. Which included sitting with a worker in that position and questioning them. Not the managers, the actual workers. And find out from them what worked and what didn’t work. And then he made changes based upon what the workers knew to be the best way to do the job. The City Council needs to listen to the fire fighters, not an outside consulting firm. If they are not comfortable doing so, then hold off on the vote and follow my former boss’s lead and do a 48 hour shift with the firefighters.

  3. The mayor and city council will pay a steep price at the polls next election if firefighter staffing is cut. It’s a bad move.

  4. The mayor and city council will pay a steep price at the polls next election if the tax payers in Edmonds are overcharged by firefighter unions too. We clearly need more information than this tiny article series provides. Tax dollars are limited, opinions are unlimited.

    1. As an FYI we have covered this issue extensively from all sides for the past few years and there are two other stories that go into more detail from the city’s perspective — those are linked from this article.

    2. The City cuts vital emergency services, yet they expended hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Sunset walk project, a project based on cronyism, at it’s best.

      We have a marsh in Edmonds, but the swamp in City Hall needs to be drained.

  5. A defect in the study and recommendation is that they assume a statistical “business as usual” situation, when they really should be looking at some downside scenarios to see if they can handle them well. I was on the National Academy of Sciences Committee that visited and reviewed the Fukushima Nuclear disaster. They had one fire engine and three reactors melting down that needed it for cooling. They needed more capability and could not bring in additional remote resources over broken roads and scattered debris. What happens in a earthquake or a train disaster? We would need a lot of capability nearby. The study should poise both likely and more remote scenarios ,and see how they might respond, to determine whether resources are adequate. The downsize recommendation comes directly from the assumption of only a few emergencies at a time.

  6. All levels of government in our democratic republic have a moral obligation to use our commonwealth (taxes, human, and natural resources) in ways that protect and empower ALL of us EQUALLY. The fire service is clearly part of that protection mandate. When adequately staffed, it provides a level of protection that elected officials should provide their citizens. It is an insurance policy for the public against the unpredictable forces that can strike any of us at any time. Shrinking the fire service is “rolling the dice” with public safety. That should strike a bit of worry in the minds of citizens and elected officials alike.

  7. I have relied on our firefighters in a life-threatening situation, and they are wonderful. There are places to save money, but not where lives are concerned. Our population is tipped toward the elderly, and our numbers are growing – and someone wants to CUT vital life-saving staffing?

  8. Got a robo call from out of state asking I go to Council meeting to support firefighters. WOW. Not sure that type of robo call is legal?

  9. Council adds a staff position to help them manage their workload and the mayor gets a raise..and they look at cutting firefighter staffing to save money. Hmm something doesn’t seem to add up! They need to be putting the citizens first.

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