Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Planning for proper emergency response

Guest opinion by Len Harlig

Len Harlig, of Ketchum, is a former member of the Blaine County Commission.

There has been a good deal of speculative comment expressed lately about this issue. I hope this perspective by someone who actually knows the facts will be helpful.

Emergency-response women and men are trained to see each emergency response situation as a requirement to carry out their mission; they want to get to the "scene" as quickly as possible so that people and property can actually be saved. All of our emergency service personnel are dedicated and selfless; a few elected or appointed leaders have personal agendas, but we shouldn't lose sight of the value of the many because of the faults of a few.

People who live at a distance from services shouldn't expect the same timely response as someone who lives in an incorporated city like Hailey or Ketchum. In an "imaginary discussion" about the issue, rural residents might acknowledge that they are too far away from services to get immediate assistance and they are "willing to take their chances." However, when an emergency situation actually strikes them, all the "conceptual" patter goes out the window and they call 911, in a panic. These distant rural residents need immediate help regardless of the imaginary recognition that they are out in the "boonies." If there is an emergency-response unit available, it is dispatched immediately regardless of how far away the need is located. In fact, the failure to dispatch could result in loss of life or property, which would be a tragedy for those involved and for the entire community; and, in this litigious society the damage claims could fall on the county for allowing residential development beyond the capacity to serve it.

Some emergency calls are for accidents on Highway 20, but those calls still get a response. If more people are on distant county roads because of additional residential development in the townsite areas or in the Carey Valley or in between, there will also be more road accidents in those locations as well. It is the accumulation of all these possible response calls that cause the concern. More residents, plus more vehicles, equals more accident calls.

In non-emergency situations: for example, when a rural resident needs a building inspection, they may conceptually understand that the inspector might not be able to get there for a few days. However, emotionally they will look at the expense of waiting and become angry or take out their frustration in inappropriate ways.

Just imagine that delay scenario applied to every county department (assessor, Planning and Zoning, prosecutor's investigations, road department, etc.). I know these examples don't happen very often right now, but that is only because there aren't many new residents out in the distant areas. As the numbers of new residents at farther distance increase, the number of calls will increase for services, for both emergency and administrative services. This is a cumulative impact issue: Each additional residential unit causes some impact; multiply this impact by the number of units in the new subdivision, and then multiply it again by each new subdivision and a clear picture emerges. More residents equal more administrative visits and the need for more county employees.

My concern about the cost and availability of services is twofold: 1) the present number of service vehicles and personnel are limited by budgetary and staffing considerations; and, 2) the distance from Hailey determines how many service calls can be made at any one time because of the amount of time it takes to get to the "scene" or the "need" and return to Hailey. The farther the distance from Hailey, the more time that any one service vehicle and its personnel are away from the population centers and not available for other calls. Common sense demonstrates that more residential units, located at a farther distance from services, can only dilute the level of service or, alternatively, require more service capacity (more vehicles and personnel). Unless the developer pays the full cost for additional facilities, vehicles, and personnel, the rest of us will pay for services to the new development in the form of either higher taxes or lower service levels.

There is no logical reason to allow development in the townsite areas, in the Carey area, and at a distance from Hailey, unless the development fully pays for the cost of providing public services. The idea that all cities should be treated the same in terms of development and needed services doesn't hold up to the realities of the actual needed infrastructure availability. There are no services available in the townsite "spheres of influence" unless they are brought there temporarily from Hailey. Whatever happens in the Carey area and the townsite areas will require county services. The other cities usually take care of themselves.

The evaluation of the cost and availability of all services is a legitimate planning tool to direct residential growth away from inefficient suburban sprawl and toward areas where infrastructure and public services are available. Those communities that allowed residential sprawl in their agricultural zones were never able to get the genie back in the bottle.

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