Council addresses ways to rebalance fire services contract; discusses budget schedule

South County Fire Chief Thad Hovis, top row-right, speaks to the Edmonds City Council, Mayor Mike Nelson, City Attorney Jeff Taraday and other fire authority staff Tuesday night via Zoom.

The Edmonds City Council at its Tuesday meeting reviewed three proposals for amending the city’s agreement with South County Fire to address a long-term service imbalance that has resulted in non-Edmonds fire units responding more frequently to emergency medical service and fire calls in the city.

The council also discussed next steps for considering Mayor Mike Nelson’s proposed 2022 budget, which must be adopted by the end of the year. And it appointed last year’s student council representative, Brook Roberts, to serve an additional year on the council.

The City of Edmonds has contracted since 2010 with South County Fire (and its predecessor, Snohomish County Fire District 1) to provide fire and emergency medical services. Before that time, the city operated its own fire department. in 2017, the city council voted to amend the interlocal agreement between the two entities to change the staffing model, with the goal of saving an estimated $1.4 million annually. The amendment reduced the total number of firefighters on duty at any given time from eleven to nine, with three at each station. (Since one of the three firefighters at each station is required to be a paramedic, the total number of paramedics increased from two to three.)

In a presentation to the council Tuesday night, City Attorney Jeff Taraday explained that the amended 2017 agreement included new formulas that were primarily intended to measure the amount of time that units from one jurisdiction — for example, Lynnwood — responded into another jurisdiction, like Edmonds. The formulas were aimed at addressing concerns of fire officials that the staffing reductions would result in surrounding jurisdictions essentially “subsidizing Edmonds,” Taraday said.

The city attorney focused on one of those formulas, the neighboring unit utilization factor (NUUF). It measures the amount of time that Edmonds units respond to calls for service outside of Edmonds and then compares that to the amount of time that non-Edmonds units respond to calls for service in Edmonds.

Under the agreement, balance is achieved when those two amounts of time are within 10% of one another. “The data shows that the neighboring cities are responding into Edmonds significantly more than Edmonds units are responding into neighboring cities like Lynnwood and Mountlake Terrace,” Taraday said.  While all of the units are South County fire units, negotiators involved in the 2017 agreement felt it was important to keep track of where the units were stationed and coming from, he added.

According to South County Fire data, the NUUF from Mountlake Terrace into Edmonds is 157% and Lynnwood into Edmonds is 252%. “Those numbers would have to be at 110% to be considered in balance under the terms of the contract,” Taraday explained.

Being out of balance essentially triggers a reopening of the contract and brings the parties back to the bargaining table, he said, noting that both South County Fire and Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson have identified their own options for  bringing the NUUF back into balance. The deadline for city to designate its preferred remedial measure is Nov. 1.

South County Fire sent a letter in June proposing that to address the imbalance, the contract be amended to add a 24-hour, two-person transport unit to an as-yet-undetermined fire station in the city, and add a 12-hour, two-person peak activity unit (also at a to-be-determined station) that would increase response during daytime hours. These additional units would cost the city $2.25 million annually on top of its current contract cost.

Edmonds Mayor Mike Nelson has offered two other, less-expensive options for addressing the imbalance, either of which would cost the city an additional $1.5 million annually. One option is to add a 24-hour, two-person unit, which would bring the staffing back to 11 firefighters — what Edmonds firefighter staffing looked like prior to 2017. The other alternative, option two, would add two 12-hour, two-person peak activity units.

“They each have their pluses and minues,” Taraday said, and that’s why the mayor is asking for the council’s feedback. “The 24-hour unit is going to give you 24 hours of coverage and so if something happens at night you are going to have additional preparedness.” However, 70% of Edmonds’ call volume happens during peak hours from 8 a.m to 8 p.m. “so if you want to have additional preparedness for the peak, the two 12-hour units would be the way to go.”

The city attorney said that while the NUUF measurement is helpful, it doesn’t take into account that many EMS units are coming into Edmonds because they are bringing patients to Swedish Edmonds Hospital. In addition, the hospital area itself is a significant generator of calls for EMS service, he said.

“It cannot be disputed that the more resources that a jurisdiction dedicates to fire and EMS services, the more prepared that jurisdiction is going to be to face emergency situations,” Taraday said. “I don’t think there’s a level of resource that will allow a city to be prepared for every single emergency that comes its way. Really the council has to decide for itself and for its citizens what the right level of preparedness is and what the right level of resources are.”

South County Fire Chief Thad Hovis noted Edmonds’ topography, bordered on the west by water, “makes it more difficult to provide fire service, especially with the changes that happened with the 2017 interlocal agreement.”

Councilmember Luke Distelhorst asked if perhaps the fire authority could consider staggering its 12-hour shifts to overlap (starting perhaps at 6 a.m. or 10 a.m.) and thus provide more coverage. Hovis replied that the 8 a.m.-8 p.m. shifts are required under South County Fire’s current collective bargaining agreement with its firefighters, and would require renegotiating the contract to change.

Council President Susan Paine asked who would decide where the additional units would be placed. Taraday said that hasn’t been discussed in detail but he would advocate the additional resources be added where they would address the NUUF calculation.

“It’s the RFA’s (regional fire authority’s) desire and my desire as fire chief to be able to deploy the resources in the city based on the demands or the data,” Hovis added.

Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas reiterated an earlier request for data that shows the percentage of calls that come in during the peak period. “I am concerned about if we have peak coverage calls at specific times, if we are going to add staff then we add them at those times,” Fraley-Monillas said.

Hovis said that collection of that data is underway and should be available soon.

Fraley-Monillas also noted that 88% of Edmonds calls are for emergency medical services (higher than the 80% found across the fire authority service area). “That’s what I think our obligation is to the citizens of Edmonds, “she said. “If we are going to increase this…that we actually protect those that are needing these sorts of EMS assistance more than fire assistance.”

The council is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the South County Fire contract amendment Oct. 26, with a final decision set for Monday, Nov. 1.  (That Nov. 1 date is a day earlier than normal since Nov. 2 is general election day and there is no Tuesday council meeting.)

Regarding the topic of budget scheduling and council priorities, Administrative Services Director Dave Turley provided the council with a two-month budget calendar that outlined important milestones in the budget process. The mayor’s budget message was delivered via Zoom Monday and a link to the recording, plus the text and the budget book, can be found here. City staff will provide presentations of their budget “decision packages” on Oct. 19, followed by a presentation on the Capital Improvement Program Oct. 26. Budget public hearings are scheduled for Nov. 1 and 16, with the goal of having an adopted budget just before Thanksgiving — on Nov. 23.

Turley noted that in creating the budget schedule, he was responding to requests made by councilmembers during their May budget retreat for staff “to bring more structure and clarity” to the process. Some councilmembers questioned the “aggressive” timeline for budget approval, noting that the budget in the past hasn’t been approved until mid-December. Other councilmembers said they believed the process could be more efficient, especially if councilmembers submitted their proposals in a timely manner to avoid the usual flurry of last-minute amendments.

In other business, the council:

– Heard a proclamation regarding Indigenous Peoples Day.

– Received the Edmonds Arts Commission annual report.

You can watch the complete council meeting video online here.

— By Teresa Wippel

  1. Someone correct me if I’m wrong here. We did away with the EFD and joined the RFA (South County Fire Dist.) to save something like $1.4M? Now, we are being told the services are out of balance between the various City’s use of the RFA to the benefit of Edmonds, so Edmonds now needs to pay back in at least $1.5M or, even better yet, over $2M to bring things back into taxation balance between the cities because Edmonds is being subsidized unfairly? I’m just a country boy from Nebraska, but I think I know a boondoggle when I see one.

    It seems to me that we are either a Regional fire department or a City Fire Department, but the Chief of the RFA seems to be trying to have it both ways with this NUUF nonsense. We should take back local control and take care of our citizens with a City fire department, just like we have a City police department. This Strong Mayor/Weak Council system, we seem married to, routinely sells us the latest theory of cheapo government that ends up costing us double in the long run for most of our needs. This is the latest example.

    1. It’s a bit more sideways than that. We have taxation without representation.

      When Lynnwood joined the RFA, they negotiated for a seat at the table; they get to elect a fire commissioner. Edmonds citizens are ineligible to serve as a fire commissioner, and we don’t vote on them either.

  2. I have observed that many times when EMS vehicles from other cities come to calls in Edmonds they are in addition to Edmonds vehicles already at the site.

    1. I witnessed this yesterday, and it prompted me identify a third option: Negotiate a change in service delivery to better balance the NUUF.

      Delivery of service can be assessed by response time, which is generally determined by arrival of the first unit. If the time to arrival of the second unit is ignored, a unit from further away can be dispatched to the call without affecting the apparent delivery of service.

      Current dispatch protocols may help explain the reported 252% imbalance. Apparatus are dispatched with the help of a computer. The computer identifies which apparatus to dispatch based upon rules presumably set by the RFA.

      With the identified imbalance, it seems appropriate to negotiate for an independent review funded by both parties (assuming the RFA is in control of dispatch protocols and thereby the purse string as well!).

      From the call I witnessed yesterday around 6:20pm, it appears the current dispatch protocol is to keep our downtown units in position and bring a Lynnwood unit into the city. I saw L14 from Blue Ridge come all the way to 80th Ave. near 194th Pl. to assist M16 for a call just a couple blocks east of the Maplewood fire station.

      Wherever the line is drawn for dispatching Lynnwood or Edmonds units may be justified. But perhaps there is another reasonable dispatch zone boundary that would yield a better balance.

      Commissioning a study to predict the consequences of altering dispatch protocols to the NUUF balance and response times based on past call statistics may contribute to a more fair arrangement, and a savings to City of Edmonds compared to the cost of continuing to support the current imbalance.

      The right balance probably won’t get us all the way down to 110%, as moving the line too far would predictably increase response times in the City if our units are too often out of position. But we probably don’t need to continue paying for a 252% imbalance either.

  3. Go Clinton! Local control whenever possible. This is exactly how we lose management of our vital services.

  4. Edmonds government, as now constituted, likes to take care of everyone except Edmonds citizens who pay the bills. This is nothing new either. Past Strong Mayors and Weak Councils have bent over backwards to save Woodway Preserve from itself (cheap police protection) and give the Ferry system an “emergency” route to unload vehicles when they are disrupted by the BNSF train blockages.

    Instead of basic things like fire protection services, we choose to restore the marsh (a noble but expensive endeavor), solve the climate crisis with draconian tree boards and penalty codes, solve racism and discrimination, have the world’s greatest dog park on some of the most valuable land in the state, and put a statue or a fountain on every corner and in the middle of the road, and turn our downtown into a European City look alike, while driving out viable businesses in the process. It would be humorous, if not so pathetic.

    We have a wonderful city in a beautiful state. Let’s just get back to some basic government here, and quit constantly trying to “guild the Lily.” Much of this is very well meaning, but also very misguided and counter productive to good basic city management.

  5. Here’s what stood out for me: “The city attorney said that while the NUUF measurement is helpful, it doesn’t take into account that many EMS units are coming into Edmonds because they are bringing patients to Swedish Edmonds Hospital. In addition, the hospital area itself is a significant generator of calls for EMS service, he said.” Obviously, neither Mountlake Terrace or Lynnwood have a major regional hospital. I think it’s fair to ask what percentage of EMS service goes to Swedish. It’s also fair to ask if we are subsidizing EMS service to Swedish for MLT and Lynnwood.

    1. You are highlighting a key point Ralph- how many of the EMS calls from Swedish (in Edmonds) are for residents of MLT and Lynnwood rather than residents of Edmonds?

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