Wednesday, May 2, 2007

South valley ponders merger of emergency services

For decades, calls have been made to integrate fire and EMS protection

view entire series


Express Staff Writers

First in a three-part series exploring the complex question of whether fire departments in the southern Wood River Valley should merge, the resolution of which has eluded a succession of elected officials.

Are three small- to mid-sized fire departments better than one large, all-encompassing department?

The answer to this seemingly straightforward question has stymied elected officials and fire department authorities in the southern Wood River Valley for decades.

In the past year, the topic has taken on a whole new sense of urgency, with elected officials and some voters considering a host of related issues.

In the years to come, decisions made by south valley elected officials will determine the critical balance between quality of emergency services and its cost to taxpayers.

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The history of consolidation

"Hailey and Blaine County need to consolidate their fire-fighting service. ... A more efficient system in the south county could provide better fire service for everyone."

Such an utterance wouldn't have been unheard of at any point in the past two decades.

In this case, the statement was made in an Idaho Mountain Express editorial published on March 17,1993.

The editorial went on to say that taxpayers are paying too much for emergency services in the south county, with too little to show for it. This was not the first time the issue of fire consolidation in the south valley had arisen, nor would it be the last.

Flash forward to August 1998. The Wood River Fire and Rescue Department and the Hailey and Bellevue fire departments rehashed the question of consolidation—and existing duplication of services—during two information sessions, one public and the other for fire department personnel.

As before, the possibility of combining the departments' assets and personnel was unable to surmount the hurdle of a troubled past characterized by strong emotions and conflicting personalities.

Just under nine years later and consolidation is being considered once again by policymakers, yet seemingly remains mired by indecision, suspicion and competing interests.

Also muddying the waters is the organization of the departments themselves. Wood River Fire and Rescue has a large number of full-time firefighters protecting not a particular city, but rather an expansive district. Hailey has a large roster, but is made up almost entirely of volunteers. Bellevue has half the number of volunteers as its northern neighbor and only a part-time fire chief.

While there has been a persistent worry over potential problems with compatibility, there is little doubt that past efforts were hampered by individual motivations.

"It's personalities, not departmental conflicts," Hailey Fire Chief Mike Chapman said during an interview at the Hailey Fire Station Thursday, April 26.

However, as the entire county continues to expand, there is general agreement that the situation in the south valley needs to change in order to provide the best possible service, lowest tax rates and cheapest insurance rates to its citizens.

Protecting the south valley

If you had to call 911 to report your house on fire or to request an ambulance, do you know which department would show up at your doorstep?

You're not alone if your answer is no.

If your home is in the southern Wood River Valley below the Greenhorn Bridge on state Highway 75, any one of three departments—or a combination thereof—could arrive with sirens blaring.

Here's how it all works.

South of the Greenhorn Bridge, the ambulance and fire protection scene is composed of multiple providers and a joint automatic-aid agreement between the different jurisdictions.

Specifically, departments in the south valley include the Wood River Fire and Rescue Department and the Hailey and Bellevue fire departments.

Of the three departments, Wood River, which is based in Hailey, maintains the highest level of staffing, having 12 full-time, career-oriented personnel and 26 volunteer personnel.

Throughout the valley, all volunteer firefighters are considered paid-on-call, which means they're paid by the hour for the firefighting services they provide.

Established as a separate taxing authority in 1974, Wood River was an all-volunteer fire department until the early 1990s, according to James Frehling, chairman of the Board of the Wood River Fire Protection District. In addition to Frehling, the three-member board of fire commissioners includes Jay Bailet and Bill Gehrke.

Then, in 1991, the Blaine County Commission, acting on behalf of the Blaine County Ambulance District, approved a contract for services to have Wood River provide personnel cross-trained as both EMTs (emergency medical technicians) and firefighters.

Later in 2000, Wood River and the Ketchum Fire Department began providing paramedic-level ambulance service for the county under contract with the Blaine County Ambulance District. As the only departments possessing these contracts, Wood River and Ketchum are the only licensed ambulance transport providers in Blaine County.

In terms of responsibility, Wood River provides ambulance transport services for a 1,500-square-mile area encompassing the southern half of Blaine County below the Greenhorn Bridge, while Ketchum provides the same services for the northern half of the county.

Today, Wood River employs 10 paramedic-trained firefighters, three additional firefighters awaiting paramedic certification, seven firefighters trained as advanced-level EMTs, and eight firefighters trained as basic-level EMTs.

Directly supervised by Fire Chief Bart Lassman, Wood River is responsible for fire protection across a smaller, roughly 150-square-mile fire district.

The department's area of fire coverage begins at the Greenhorn Bridge on the north, extends south into a significant portion of the Bellevue Triangle, and then west to the Blaine County-Camas County border on U.S. Highway 20 near the Moonstone Ranch. Currently, Wood River has three fire stations, with two located within Hailey city limits, and the third located just south of Bellevue on state Highway 75.

The department shares ownership of the Bellevue-area fire station with the Bureau of Land Management, which uses the station's housing quarters in the summer for its wildland firefighting crews.

The Hailey Fire Department is responsible for fire protection within the Hailey city limits, an area covering 3.55 square miles.

As a largely volunteer firefighting force, the Hailey Fire Department employs four full-time personnel—including Fire Chief Mike Chapman and Assistant Fire Chief Carl Hjelm—and staffs another 18 volunteer personnel.

In addition to its fire protection duties, the Hailey Fire Department also provides basic-level EMT service. However, because Hailey does not have an ambulance transport contract, all they can provide is basic life-saving measures until Wood River paramedics arrive on scene.

For now, the Hailey Fire Department only has one fire station, which is located at 617 South Third Street, directly adjacent to Wood River's fire station No. 2.

Future plans for the Hailey Fire Department call for the construction of two new fire stations, one to be located in the southern Woodside neighborhood, and the other to be located to the north, perhaps in the Northridge subdivision. If those stations are built, plans call for decommissioning Hailey's aging fire station on Third Street.

Compared to the other two departments, the Bellevue Fire Department is a significantly smaller affair, with its area of coverage currently just 1.275 square miles.

Supervised by part-time Fire Chief Greg Beaver, the department staffs nine volunteer personnel. The department's one and only fire station, located just north of Bellevue City Hall, is leased from a private party.

Each of the three fire departments also has signed on to a joint automatic aid agreement that stipulates how and when they will provide backup emergency services to one another.

Under the agreement, Wood River is required to send out an appropriate fire apparatus with a minimum of three firefighters and an ambulance with a minimum of two firefighters, one of which is an EMT, to all reported structure fires in Bellevue. In Hailey, Wood River is required to send their aerial ladder truck with a minimum of three firefighters and an ambulance with a minimum of two firefighters, one of which is an EMT, to all reported structure fires in the city.

For their part, the Hailey Fire Department is required to send out at least three firefighters to any reported structure fires in Bellevue or the Wood River Fire Protection District.

The Bellevue Fire Department's responsibilities under the joint automatic aid agreement include sending out a structural fire apparatus to all reported structure fires within the Wood River Fire Protection District or the city of Hailey.

Is change needed?

Without exception, everyone interviewed for this series stated that some form of consolidation between some or all of south valley's fire departments—whether it be full consolidation, a contract for services or a joint powers agreement—would be an improvement beyond the current situation.

In general, the possibility of a more efficient delivery of emergency services is cited as one of the key reasons why bringing the departments together is needed.

So, does the southern Wood River Valley need three separate fire departments—two of which provide some level of EMT services—or would the area be better served by consolidation?

The debate has returned to the consciousness of both the public and elected officials, propagated by a sequence of recent events.

In Hailey, the catalyst for the discussion was the defeat during last November's general elections of a $2.3 million bond request that would have funded a new 10,445-square-foot fire station at the intersection of Woodside and Countryside boulevards. Some thought the bond fell at the hands of two camps, those who believe the city doesn't require a change in the level of fire protection service and those who believe Hailey should look further into consolidating with another department before undertaking such a financial commitment.

The interest of taxpayers to negate any duplication of services between the departments goes beyond stations, and extends to emergency medical services and firefighting apparatus.

Simultaneously in Bellevue, the City Council and Planning and Zoning Commission are working through three highly-publicized annexation proposals that would more than double the size of the city.

An increase of this proportion will necessitate a drastic change in the city's fire protection capabilities. Already swamped with administrative duties such as inspections, Bellevue's part-time Fire Chief Greg Beaver realizes the impending difficulties his department may soon face.

"The city needs to do something different," Beaver said in a recent interview.

He didn't even bother to mention the oft-repeated fact that Bellevue doesn't even own the station that currently houses the department's equipment.

For Bellevue, the question then becomes one of who to partner with and what type of agreement to create.

Bellevue Councilman Shaun Mahoney summed up the sentiments of his constituents during an interview on April 19, noting their true concern.

"No one cares who saves them, just as long as they get saved."

Next Wednesday: An in-depth analysis of the south valley fire consolidation issue, including interviews with elected officials, fire department authorities and other concerned citizens of the Wood River Valley.

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