Vancouver City Council discusses recommendations to stabilize fire services

Options explored as costs climb and resources shrink

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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The Vancouver City Council on Monday had its first chance to discuss recommendations on how to stabilize funding for fire services while keeping services at an acceptable level.

Recommendations on how to redesign fire services were made by an 11-member community resource team, which included neighborhood and business leaders, and a 13-member technical resource team made up of city employees.

The recommendations include using sport-utility vehicles for responding to medical calls as opposed to a fire engine or a ladder truck; ceasing to respond to some nonemergency medical calls; consolidating Fire Station 1 and Fire Station 2 in west Vancouver; re-evaluating the contract to provide services for Clark County Fire District 5; and adjusting firefighters' work schedules to mirror the heaviest call times, which peak between 2 and 5 p.m.

Figuring how to fund fire and emergency services in the face of increasing costs and decreasing revenues has been a key issue for the council since late 2010, when the city closed Fire Station 6 because of budget cuts. The station, on Northeast 112th Avenue, reopened in late 2011 after the city secured a $2.3 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. That grant, which pays for 13 firefighters, expires at the end of 2013.

Fire Chief Joe Molina said after Monday's workshop that he wants to avoid closing Fire Station 6 again, and that the 13 grant-funded positions can be cut through attrition rather than layoffs.

During the workshop, councilors heard from Molina and Jan Bader, the city's program and policy development manager, that if the city's spending on fire and emergency medical services continues -- based on conservative assumptions of a modest economic recovery -- the fire department's annual deficit will be $4.69 million by 2018.

In addition, seven of the city's 10 fire stations require moderate to major seismic upgrades, with an estimated cost of $6.4 million.

The city council didn't take any action Monday, and will take up the topic of redesigning emergency services at a Nov. 5 workshop. The council has a four-hour retreat on Dec. 7 to discuss redesigning fire and emergency medical services.

The committee did not recommend cutting firefighters, as Vancouver's staffing level already falls below the national average.

As for the SUVs, Bader said one question often asked is, "Why does a big fire engine show up for a minor medical event?" The engines are the resources the firefighters have, even though they are trained as paramedics and don't need engines to respond to medical calls.

Including the cost of labor, parts, fuel and depreciation, it costs $7.47 per mile to operate a fire engine, compared to $1.34 a mile for an SUV.

For the job of transporting patients to hospitals, the city contracts with American Medical Response, a private ambulance company.

Molina said the conundrum facing Vancouver is a national trend, as the primary job of fire departments has evolved to medical response because of inventions such as fire sprinklers, fire alarms and better building materials.

Of more than 23,000 calls in 2010, 74 percent of VFD's calls were for emergency medical services; fire-related calls accounted for about 3 percent.

Molina said he's working with Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency to ensure dispatchers give the clearest picture of the call so the response matches the need.

"It was always, 'If you have any doubt, send them out,'" Molina said.

Medical calls are ranked priority 1 through 6, with 1 being the most critical and 6 being a nonemergency such as an ankle sprain.

The department has stopped responding to priority 6 calls as well as some priority 5 calls, and could decide to stop going out on other nonemergency calls and just have AMR respond, Molina said.

As for Clark County Fire District 5, the city started contracting to provide services there in 1994 with the idea the area within the city's urban growth boundary, which includes Orchards, Sifton, Pleasant Valley and Minnehaha, would eventually be annexed. Two decades later, there are still no plans for annexation.

Residents in Fire District 5 pay a lower tax rate ($1.34 per $1,000 of assessed value, compared to a city resident's rate of $1.61 per $1,000 of assessed value). Committee members expressed concern that city residents are subsidizing services for residents who live in unincorporated Clark County, according to the Fire Service Delivery Analysis Report.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.