The county’s purse strings are tightening and North Whatcom Fire and Rescue (NWFR) is feeling the pinch.
In a measure that he hopes will bring the county’s budget under control, Whatcom County executive Jack Louws is proposing to reduce the number of Medic 1 Advanced Life Support (ALS) units available in the county as well as end the county’s funding of the fire district’s dispatch service fees.
“I’m trying to figure out a way to provide an adequate service to citizens so that when they get hurt or in need, we can provide help,” Louws said in a phone interview. “But when you’re burning $1.1 million a year, you have to put a stop to that.”
Currently there are four full-time ALS units operating out of Bellingham (two of which are dedicated to the county), and one half-time unit operating out of District 7 in Ferndale. The District 7 unit is dedicated to Ferndale and does not support the rest of the county.
ALS units are manned by paramedics, who are highly trained emergency responders and are licensed to administer drugs and start IVs en route to the hospital. Typically they respond to medical situations such as cardiac arrests, car accidents and diabetic comas.
“They respond to all the really life threatening stuff,” Louws said.
Basic Life Support units (BLS) are operated by EMTs provided by the fire districts and respond to non-life-threatening injuries. Out of the 15,000 calls received system-wide each year, 5,800 are ALS calls.
Louws’ proposal would strip one unit from the Bellingham station, leaving two dedicated units to serve Bellingham and one unit for the county. It would also convert the District 7 unit to full time. That unit would then serve both Ferndale and the county.
“I’m not pleased with presenting something that’s a step backwards,” he said. “I want to do what’s best for the citizens of Whatcom County, but it’s my job to present the best proposal based on the dollars we have to work with.
“Based on the data that I see right now, I don’t think that we need any more than the four units,” Louws continued, citing data accumulated from ALS service calls over the past few years. “Don’t get me wrong, five is definitely better than four, but based on the call volumes we are having, and looking at it from an analytical standpoint, the need isn’t there.”
But cutting a unit will only fix part of the financial problem.
Louws is also proposing that the county stop paying the fire districts’ dispatch fees (which average $60 per call) in order to make up the shortfall. “I’m proposing that we aren’t paying that bill any more,” Louws said. “The $147,000 that we pay on behalf of the fire districts to the city of Bellingham’s dispatch system (Prospect) would be instead pushed back to the fire districts.”
Neither of the options sit well with the fire districts.
At the regular Blaine City Council meeting on June 24, NWFR district chief Ron Anderson addressed council with his concerns.
“We’re going to lose one full-time position for our district because of these cuts,” Anderson said. “The board of commissioners asked the fire districts to step up and take larger roles in the emergency medical services a few years back, so we cross-trained firefighters and EMTs to do so, and we went out and bought ambulances. In exchange, they agreed to pay our dispatch fees. Now they want to dump that back on us since they are struggling. It doesn’t seem right.”
The city of Bellingham provides dispatching for all county fire systems. Dispatch fees are assessed based upon the number of calls a district receives per year.
Anderson said that Louws’ solutions may make a dent, but they ultimately don’t add up to balancing the budget or providing the service necessary for the county.
“[Louws] is working off the law of averages,” Anderson said. “Each unit could potentially handle 2,000 calls, but that’s only if the calls were evenly spaced out. But calls aren’t evenly spaced out. If you have a bad accident on the freeway, or a fire in Lynden and a fire in Bellingham at the same time, you have to have extra capacity in your system so that when things happen you can respond.”
Anderson said the district has sent a letter to council with their recommendation. “We don’t think it’s the best option,” he said. “We are generally opposed to any reductions in the number of ambulances available in the county at a given time.”
To maintain current service levels, and to pay for the dispatch fees, Anderson said that the fire districts are proposing a 1/10 of a cent sales tax be levied to cover costs. “Instead of putting the burden on taxpayers, we could include those Canadians who use our services,” he said. “We already tax people 1/10 of a cent for the current system. We could make up the shortfall if we were able to increase that. We want to be on the record that there are better options out there than cutting the system.”