Cheney Free Press -

By Lee Hughes
Staff Reporter 

Finding some firefighting options

Fire-EMS in Medical Lake will require more money, volunteers being stretched thinner

 

January 31, 2019

No matter how you slice it, fire and emergency service delivery in Medical Lake is likely to cost taxpayers more money.

At least that’s the assessment of Medical Lake Fire Chief Jason Mayfield, who cited an increased number of calls received by the department’s all-volunteer staff that went unanswered in 2018.

Those missed calls are symptomatic of a number of challenges the Medical Lake Fire Department is facing, including geographically dispersed volunteers — many live outside Medical Lake — aging equipment, and a population that is larger than most other rural fire departments in the county, Mayfield said.

Call volume is unusually large for an all-volunteer fire department. According to Mayfield, his department responds to nearly 20 percent more calls than Spokane County Fire Districts 2, 5, 11 and 12 combined.

Mayfield attributed the disparity to Medical Lake’s population density. Some of the City of Spokane’s fire stations, which are staffed by ful-ltime career firefighters, don’t respond to the same volume of calls as Medical Lake’s all-volunteer crew. While some Spokane stations handle thousands of calls each year — SFD1 in downtown Spokane handled 13,186 first response calls in 2018 alone — others handle much less, according to Michele Anderson, the Spokane Fire Department’s communications manager. SFD5 in the Latah Valley area handled 354.

“For a small town, we’re busy,” Mayfield said.

The demand on volunteers is high, and requires considerable commitment. Together the department’s volunteers clocked over 12,000 on-call hours, and nearly 7,500 on-duty station hours, plus over 1,600 hours of training in 2018, according to a MLFD fact sheet. And that’s after volunteers work their full time jobs, handle family commitments and life in general.

So it’s no surprise that turnover is high. The number of MLFD firefighters can range from the low 20s to as high as 28 at any time, Mayfield said.

“Some losses are obviously easier to absorb and recover from than others,” he added, especially as experienced leaders leave for reasons including taking fulltime, career firefighting jobs elsewhere. That turnover affects the department’s experience and continuity.

Another issue is the geographic dispersion of volunteers. Some live as far away as the City of Spokane Valley, near its border with Liberty Lake, about a 30-mile drive from the fire station. Only seven volunteers actually live in Medical Lake.

While volunteers living in the city can, on average, respond to a call within five minutes, those living further away must make the drive from home or work, which takes time. The average response time in 2018 was eight minutes, seven seconds.

Those firefighters living outside Medical Lake are required to stand periodic duty at the fire station in City Hall. While there is a minimum, some do so more often than others. Response times are reduced to about two minutes when the station is staffed, according to Mayfield.

In terms of call volume, the MLFD is a bit of an outlier, Mayfield said. Typically, when annual calls reach a volume of around 300, all-volunteer departments consider hiring full-time career firefighters to supplement its volunteer members. Medical Lake responded to over twice that many calls last year alone.

Spokane County Fire District 3, which surrounds Medical Lake, is staffed that way.

Meanwhile, the MLFD’s volunteers are responding to calls using an aging fleet of fire apparatus. While the department has a 2003 squad truck that’s first out on EMS calls, and a 2004 command truck, the age of actual firefighting apparatus ranges from between 24 and 33 years old. And although Mayfield applies annually for a Federal Emergency Management Agency grant, it’s a very competitive process.

“Every department in the country applies for the grant every year,” he said.

The last grant the department received was over a decade ago.

There are several options for dealing with these challenges. The first is to simply do nothing — stay the present course and try to overcome the department’s challenges. But Mayfield doesn’t view this as an option people should necessarily accept.

“Citizens must know there will be times when they call 911 and no one will respond from this station,” Mayfield said.

That’s already happening. Calls have increased 7.8 percent overall during the last five years, peaking at 684 in 2016 in what Mayfield classified as a “record year.” That August the department experienced 84 calls, its busiest month on record.

The fire department was unable to respond to over 26 percent — 167 of 642 — of the EMS and fire calls it received in 2018. That slack was taken up primarily by the for-profit ambulance service American Medical Response (AMR), according to Mayfield. (A volunteer himself, Mayfield works full-time as an emergency medical technician for AMR.)

SCFD3 responded to about 57 of those unanswered calls, according to Division Chief Dustin Flock, as part of a mutual aid agreement between the two departments.

As Mayfield calculates it, any option short of doing nothing will require additional funding, whether fire and EMS service remains under the direct control of the City of Medical Lake, or is shifted to an outside agency.

The city recently renewed a voter-approved EMS levy costing property owners 50 cents for every $1,000 of assessed property value. Yet even with that levy, the city must still supplement the fire department out of its tight general budget, according to City Administrator Doug Ross.

One option in overcoming these challenges is to ask Medical Lake voters to approve an additional fire levy on top of the current EMS levy. Mayfield felt such a levy would allow the department to purchase much-needed equipment and to hire fulltime career firefighters to staff the fire station while being augmented by volunteers, similar to the model used by SCFD3.

Another option is for the city to outsource its fire and EMS services, similar to that done with the city’s former police department. City law enforcement is now contracted out to the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. Still, contracting out isn’t free, and will require funding of some sort.

A fourth option — the one currently under serious discussion — is to merge MLFD with SCFD3, whose 565 square mile area of responsibility completely surrounds Medical Lake.

“But that’s going to cost money as well,” Mayfield pointed out.

Similar to a new fire levy, annexation into the SCFD3 would require the approval of both Medical Lake and SCFD3 voters. If approved, the annexation would automatically annul Medical Lake’s current six-year EMS levy, and Medical Lake property owners would be taxed at the SCFD3’s current levy rate of $1.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Of course, that rate will increase the amount that Medical Lake’s property owners pay in property taxes.

The value of a median priced home in Medical Lake is about $232,350, according to the real estate website Zillow.com. Such a median-valued home currently pays about $116 per year for emergency service calls under the Medical Lake EMS levy. That would rise about $232 per year to $350 annually if an annexation were approved and levy rates adjusted to the SCFD3 rate.

In the end it comes down to a choice for Medical Lake voters: stay the course and hope that volunteers can continue to meet the community’s needs, or pay-up for the services the professionals say are needed to meet demand.

In a recent interview, SCFD3 Fire Chief Cody Rohr Rohrbach said his department could meet that need.

“We can guarantee a 100 percent response rate,” he said.

Mayfield’s assessment about the option of staying the course wasn’t so rosy.

“The reality of the situation is we re going to have to spend more money,” Mayfield said.

Lee Hughes can be reached at lee@cheneyfreepress.com

 

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