Wednesday, November 1, 2006

Does Hailey need a new fire station?

Voters to decide on $2.3 million bond proposal

Express Staff Writer

Image courtesy of the Hailey Fire Department This artist?s rendering shows the potential design of the proposed Woodside fire station. The station, which Hailey is asking voters to help fund through a $2.3 million bond, would include space for full-time firefighter living quarters, administrative offices, a public meeting room and large apparatus bays.

It's sort of a chicken-or-the-egg kind of question.

Should Hailey build a Woodside fire station or initiate further discussions on consolidation between the city's Fire Department and the county's Wood River Fire and Rescue?

According to some, this is the real question Hailey voters must consider when they head to the polls on Nov. 7 to consider a $2.3 million bond request put forth by the city of Hailey. If ultimately approved, the bond would be used to help pay for the construction of a $2.7 million fire station on the northeast corner of the intersection of Woodside and Countryside boulevards.

In the eyes of Hailey city officials, requesting funds to build the new fire station in Woodside makes perfect sense at this time. They tout the need for faster emergency service in Woodside and assert that that delaying construction will only make it more expensive in the future. The fire station has been in the city's long-range plans for years, they pointed out.

A "yes" or "no" vote next Tuesday by Hailey residents will indicate whether voters think the current level of service in the Woodside area needs improvement or is already adequate, Hailey officials contend.

On the other hand, some believe Hailey is rushing. They say the city should first consult with others—namely Wood River Fire and Rescue—to come up with a master plan on how best to cover the emergency protection needs of the Woodside area.

In the opinion of these people, a "no" vote on the fire station bond could also be interpreted as meaning the city should simply put the brakes on building a new fire station until a decision on consolidating emergency services is reached.

Information provided by the city of Hailey in its October "Our Town" newsletter and at a recent open house held at the Third Street fire station indicates that response times to the Woodside area average just over eight minutes.

This is simply too long, Hailey Assistant Fire Chief Carl Hjelm told the large crowd gathered at the Tuesday, Oct. 24, meeting. "Eight minutes is a long time when something bad is happening."

Elsewhere in the city, emergency response times are much shorter, at an average of just four minutes.

The longer response times to the Woodside area also negatively impact the city's overall insurance rating, Hailey Fire Chief Mike Chapman said. The fire insurance industry considers everything south of Moonlight Drive in central Woodside outside of the Hailey Fire Department's service area, which is defined as properties within 1.5 miles of a fire station.

"That's what the ISO (Insurance Services Organization) rates on," Chapman said.

One of the primary issues of contention that has been raised ahead of the upcoming vote is the actual design of the facility. Hailey has asked city voters to approve funding for a 10,445-square-foot building designed with a 50-year serviceable lifespan. In addition to a 4,800-square-foot main apparatus bay with an additional 1,600 square feet of mezzanine storage, the building would also include 2,800-square feet in an administrative wing and another 2,765-square feet of residential living space for full-time firefighters.

At a total estimated cost of $680,000, the station's residential space contributes significantly to its overall cost. Hailey officials say the residential space could be used immediately for another fire department's existing full-time staff under some sort of cooperative use agreement or, sometime in the future, full-time firefighters with the Hailey Fire Department.

Hailey going to a full-time firefighting staff is more than just a possibility, Hailey Mayor Susan McBryant said during an interview Tuesday. "I don't know how many people that will be, but I do see that as a real life thing."

Hailey has chosen to move forward with the bond proposal at this time because of several factors, she said. These include the expectation for rapid growth in the Woodside area due to construction on the 421-unit Sweetwater housing project and the fact that payments on the bond that paid for the Hailey City Hall and library are nearly complete.

In the event Hailey's $2.3 million fire station bond request is approved by voters, annual bond payments would be structured to match those $190,000 annual bond payment city taxpayers are now paying. Taxpayers will make the last of the bond payments for the Hailey City Hall and library on Aug. 1, 2008.

Payments on the $2.3 million fire station bond would last for 21 years.

The remaining difference between the $2.3 million bond request and the estimated $2.7 million cost of the Woodside fire station would be paid for with budget reserves. Other options to pay for the approximately $500,000 difference between the bond request and the total cost of the fire station could come from anticipated local option tax funds or government grants or both.

Information provided by Wood River Fire and Rescue shows its response times for all emergency calls to the Woodside area average at about 5.9 minutes—faster than the Hailey Fire Department's eight-minute Woodside average, but slower than Hailey's in-town, non-Woodside four-minute average.

The reason for the discrepancy is simple: Because Wood River Fire and Rescue staffs its department with full-time fire and medical emergency responders around the clock, it can leave immediately once a call comes in from Blaine County dispatch.

Meanwhile, Hailey's volunteer firefighters typically must drive to the Hailey fire station to jump on one of the department's emergency rigs when the same call comes in from Blaine County dispatch.

Automatic aid agreements between the Hailey Fire Department and Wood River Fire and Rescue route all in-Hailey emergency calls to both departments and have both respond to every emergency.

Most people involved with the two departments agree that the current situation, which has two fire stations side-by-side on Third Street and another several blocks away near the Blaine County Courthouse, isn't the best possible scenario.

The redundancy of the two departments is a key reason why Diane Barker believes Hailey should hold off on building the new fire station until some sort of consensus on consolidating the two departments is reached. Barker is the vice chair of the Wood River/Sawtooth Regional EMS Association.

The vast majority of calls the Hailey and Wood River fire departments respond to are medical calls.

"Any time Hailey fire responds to an EMS call, it is a redundancy in the system," Barker said.

She noted that Hailey is only certified to provide EMT-Basic level medical service. On the other hand, Wood River is certified at a higher Paramedic-level service and provides the ambulance transport for all of south Blaine County, including Hailey.

While she doesn't question the need for Hailey's EMT volunteers, Barker thinks the current system is overly costly to taxpayers.

"It would be far more efficient to have the Hailey Fire Department and Wood River fire department training together in all respects under a combined fire department," she said.

Barker believes that first creating an overall master plan addressing the needs of the Woodside area before a fire station is built would better serve the residents of the area.

"The key is master planning," she said. "I think voting 'no' on the bond is giving the city the message that you want them to develop a master plan to consolidate services and ferret out inefficiencies in the system."

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