Wednesday, May 9, 2007

What is reasoning behind calls for fire consolidation?

Deficiencies, duplications seen as driving forces

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Firefighters from the Wood River Fire and Rescue Department fight a March 2003 fire that destroyed this two-story log home west of Bellevue on Fox Hollow Gulch Road. Also assisting on the fire were firefighters from the Bellevue Fire Department. Photo by David N. Seelig

By Jason Kauffman and Jon Duval

Express Staff Writers

On a typical Sunday, traffic on state Highway 75 flowing by Hailey's Woodside neighborhood demonstrates a reprieve from the workweek bustle. No reason to speed, no cursing at the ambling driver straddling lanes, and no one rushing to work.

That is, unless you were a south valley firefighter on Feb. 4.

When the initial alarm of a structure fire near the Sunnyside Apartments came in at 11:38 a.m., firefighters from Wood River Fire and Rescue and the Hailey and Bellevue fire departments proved there's no such thing as a lazy Sunday.

In the time it takes most of us to assemble a bowl of cereal, firefighters from Wood River and Hailey had donned the appropriate attire and raced from their stations in central Hailey south to Woodside.

On scene, they faced a task that would leave the untrained in a useless puddle of panic: enter a duplex that has flames coming out of an upstairs window, battle through heavy smoke to douse the fire, and, if that weren't enough, rescue three dogs trapped in a bedroom.

Three Wood River firefighters, under the command of Hailey Assistant Fire Chief Carl Hjelm, did just that, but apparently this still wasn't enough of a challenge, as one of the dogs lost consciousness and stopped breathing.

Removing his own breathing apparatus, Matt Lutz, a Wood River senior engineer, revived the dog with mouth-to-snout resuscitation and reunited it with its grateful owner.

While this reads like plot of a summer blockbuster movie, in real time all these events transpired in less than 15 minutes from the moment the call was received.

The professional manner in which this incident was handled is largely a result of the automatic aid agreement existing between the three departments of the south valley.

Under the current agreement, all three departments are required to provide assistance in the form of personnel and equipment to any reported structure fire in any one of their jurisdictions.

Had this fire taken place in the absence of such an agreement, the results could have been drastically different.

Although this fire took place in Hailey, Wood River was able to respond with fourteen firefighters, having the benefit of full-time personnel and a station manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Wood River's manpower proved imperative in this case, as it would have been extremely dangerous for the three Hailey firefighters who were able to arrive in those 15 minutes to take on such a blaze by themselves.

While numerous incident reports show it was an isolated example in regards to Hailey's response, the February fire in Woodside does serve to demonstrate the importance of the cooperation between departments.

"It's nice to be an incident commander on fires like Sunday's where crews work together as well as they did," Hjelm said shortly after the fire. "The crews really did a nice job."

Such joint assistance is necessary, especially considering the majority of firefighters in all three departments are volunteers.

Having regular day jobs creates obvious logistical difficulties for volunteers, many of whom do not work in the same city as their station.

At the moment, this agreement allows for a sufficient level of service for the citizens of both Hailey and Bellevue.

However, with the populations of the two cities increasing rapidly and the possibility of large annexations into Bellevue, it's becoming clear that this may not always be the case, at least if some action isn't taken.

But these concerns have returned the topic of consolidating south valley fire departments to the collective consciousness of key players, including elected officials and fire authorities.

Calls for consolidation increase

Instrumental to the issue's renewed vigor in Hailey—at least publicly—was last November's failed $2.3 million bond request by the city to fund a new 10,445-square-foot fire station at the intersection of Woodside and Countryside boulevards.

Both before and after the bond's Nov. 7 defeat at the polls, calls for consolidation were commonly heard in Hailey.

However, at least in the run-up to the election, it became clear the discussion wasn't a welcome one in certain quarters, and was viewed as a distraction from other issues.

A case in point was the apparently straightforward open house held at Hailey's Third Street fire station to discuss the city's fire station bond request. Over the course of the meeting, the tone went from civil to heated when the issue of consolidation was broached following a 30-minute presentation by Hailey Assistant Fire Chief Hjelm.

During a follow-up question-and-answer session, many speakers likened Hailey building its own fire station to the go-it-alone attitude that has brought south valley emergency services to the point they are today, namely three departments providing similar services within a relatively small geographic area.

While some in the crowd did indicate support for the bond, those opposed to it said Hailey's drive to build a Woodside fire station without first considering consolidation was analogous to putting the cart before the horse.

One of those who spoke out during the late-October meeting was Woodside resident Anne Elliot. Specifically, Elliot questioned the wisdom of Hailey constructing housing in the fire station at an estimated cost of $680,000 when the city's fire department is still an 80-percent volunteer force.

Without an agreement allowing full-time firefighters from Wood River to staff the housing quarters, the building would end up vacant most of the time, she noted.

"What's the point?" Elliot asked. "Otherwise, you have a building and that's all you have."

An overall master plan for emergency services in the southern Wood River Valley—including where new fire stations should be built—would allow deficiencies in the area to be overcome most efficiently, Elliot and others said.

Despite being peppered with similar comments throughout the meeting, Hjelm made repeated attempts to rein in the discussion and return it to one focusing just on the fire station proposal. Consolidation deserves to be debated on its own merits and shouldn't be discussed concurrently with the bond request, he stated.

"The whole consolidation thing is a big old can of worms," Hjelm said.

At its most basic level, much of the opposition to Hailey's fire station bond request seemed a matter of timing, rather than a lack of support for the proposed facility. In fact, nearly everyone involved with emergency services in the south valley seems to agree that a fire station in the area is needed.

Adequate fire station coverage is the lacking component across the entire south valley fire scene, Hailey Fire Chief Mike Chapman said during a recent interview.

"Right now, we're all hobbled," Chapman said.

Inadequate fire station coverage is immediately tied to longer emergency response times, which in turn is directly connected to the fire insurance rates homeowners in the south valley pay.

These rates are based on the insurance ratings that all municipalities and rural fire districts receive from the Insurance Services Organization. ISO ratings are given on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the best possible rating and 10 being the worst.

Basically, the higher the ISO rating in a given fire district, the more homeowners in that area will pay for their fire insurance.

In the south valley, ISO ratings run the gamut from a 4 in Hailey; varying ratings of 4, 8, 9 and 10, depending on where you live in the 150-square mile Wood River Fire Protection District, and a 6 in Bellevue.

When evaluating fire districts, one of the most critical components the ISO considers is the distance from the nearest fire station. For municipalities, the ISO's maximum preferred distance is 1.5 miles from the nearest fire station. In rural fire districts, that preferred distance expands to 5 miles from the nearest fire station.

Which brings the discussion back to the generally agreed upon inadequacy of south valley fire station coverage, the related topic of fire and emergency response times and Hailey's justification for the need to build a Woodside fire station.

Within the Woodside neighborhood, the Hailey Fire Department's average response time for emergency calls is eight minutes, as indicated in the city's October 2006 Our Town newsletter. Minus the Woodside area, Hailey's average in-town response time to emergency calls is much quicker at just four minutes.

By comparison, information provided last fall by Wood River Fire and Rescue Department shows their response times for all emergency calls to the Woodside area averages out to 5.9 minutes.

The two stations are adjacent to each other in downtown Hailey, so what creates such a difference? Wood River has full-time staffing and is able to immediately respond to emergency calls. The Hailey fire station must wait for volunteers to arrive and board their vehicles.

Within Hailey and Bellevue, the issue of response times is also an issue during the daytime, when the two cities' volunteers are often at work.

While the issue of consolidation has reappeared in Bellevue with similar force, the significance and consequences have some distinct differences.

As Bellevue Fire Chief Greg Beaver is all too aware, his fire station can't even be called his, because it's leased from a private party to the city, an agreement that he says is in no way guaranteed.

What's more, the size is inadequate to the point it can't even fit an office for Beaver, let alone room for larger equipment, such as a ladder truck.

Although mutual and automatic aid agreements with Wood River and Hailey help maintain an acceptable level of fire protection service, should Bellevue's City Council approve current annexation proposals that would more than double the size of the city, there is little doubt it will become insufficient.

Beaver, however, hardly even has time to concern himself with future problems, as his present situation creates enough anxiety.

As a part-time employee of the city, Beaver is contracted to provide his services as fire chief for 16 hours per week. Not once has he been able to keep to those hours, Beaver said. So, along with his job with the Friedman Memorial Airport Fire Department, he's essentially working two full-time jobs, and his overtime in Bellevue is being billed at the rate of a paid on-call volunteer.

"I'm not going to last," said Beaver in a recent interview.

With only two major structure fires since he's been chief, Beaver spends nearly all of his time attempting not to fall too far behind state codes on fire inspections.

"I'll have been here two years in August and I haven't been able to do half of what I need to," Beaver said.

With the potential addition of approximately 550 acres just south of the city, people are beginning to wonder how nearly 1,000 homes would receive proper fire protection.

At a special meeting of Bellevue's City Council on April 18, Jay Bailet, a commissioner of the Wood River Fire Protection District and Gannett Road resident, noted that Wood River and Bellevue need to start making plans to protect these communities.

Aware of this looming dilemma, Bellevue is in the midst of discussing possible consolidation with both Hailey and Wood River, but if history is any kind of guide, it will not be easy or quick.

"Right now the city is getting one heck of a deal for what it receives," Beaver said, referring to the assistance from Hailey and Wood River, but also said that it's up to city officials to determine the next course of action. "I'm in it for my volunteers and the citizens of Bellevue and will leave it up to the council to decide what's best for the city."

Duplication of services

As with most issues, topics related to emergency services in the south valley ultimately come down to dollars and cents. In this case, the question is what level of services are necessary, and what's simply superfluous.

A perfect example cited by many involved in the south valley emergency services scene is the side-by-side existence of Wood River's fire station No. 2 and Hailey's Third Street fire station.

While in the past there certainly were justifiable reasons for the two separate stations, those needs are no longer valid, Chapman said.

"It was appropriate at the time, and now we just stand outside and shake our heads," he said. "There was a method to the madness."

Redundancies in the south valley's emergency medical services are another component of the duplication issue that deserve a critical look, others point out. How the valley's EMS services are provided is especially important since EMS calls greatly exceed other emergency calls.

In 2006, EMS calls constituted nearly 70 percent of all the fire and EMS calls for the Wood River Valley's five fire departments.

As things currently stand, Wood River is the only department in the south valley providing paramedic-level ambulance service. The department provides this service across 1,500 square miles in south Blaine County under contract with the Blaine County Ambulance District.

Included in Wood River's overall staffing are 10 paramedic-trained firefighters and three additional firefighters awaiting paramedic certification.

Also providing emergency medical services, but at a lower basic-EMT level, is the Hailey Fire Department. Hailey provides this service at a cost to its citizens of nearly $23,000 per year, Chapman said.

Despite the costs, Hailey officials have chosen to provide that extra measure of emergency medical service as added safety net for city residents, he explained.

"It gives Hailey residents a little higher care," Chapman said.

Whether that extra cost is necessary, and indeed prudent—especially given that Hailey EMS responders can provide basic life-saving measures only if they arrive on scene before Wood River paramedics—is debatable, some claim.

For his part, Wood River Fire Chief Bart Lassman questions the need for Hailey to provide EMS services. The $23,000 cost of those services is still one Hailey citizens must bear, he said.

"We have that built in place, too," Lassman said, adding that staffing levels at his department allow for simultaneous EMS responses.

Where to from here?

So, has the possibility for merging the south valley's three fire departments passed?

Lassman, for one, thinks not.

All across Idaho, numerous fire districts have been brought together under various forms of consolidation, Lassman said. The same could happen here—to the benefit of those who pay for the area's emergency services.

"Why are we so different that it can't happen here?" Lassman asked.

Bottom line, those who work in emergency services need to remember they work for the public interest, Lassman said. In the end, providing the best possible services to the public in the most efficient and least costly way should be the ultimate goal, Lassman said.

"We've lost some of that," he said. "It's not about us."

Next Wednesday: What will emergency services look like in the years to come? Elected officials, fire department authorities and other concerned citizens give their thoughts on the future of emergency services in the southern Wood River Valley.

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