News

Where will paramedics come from?

By ERICA HALL

The Mirror

The cities of Federal Way and Kent think they could do paramedic service in south King County at least as well as King County Medic One, but questions about paramedics' retirement and benefits remain unanswered.

Several entities - Federal Way and Kent fire departments, King County Emergency Medical Services, labor representatives, and representatives from fire services throughout King County — recently finished a feasibility study to see whether a south King County paramedic service, overseen by the cities of Kent and Federal Way, could effectively provide paramedic service from Renton and Tukwila south to the Pierce County line.

While the study showed Federal Way and Kent could take over the show, a paramedic employees union has raised labor and retirement concerns.

King County Emergency Medical Services declined to comment on the idea until King County Executive Ron Sims has had a chance to read a report on the study, which hasn't been submitted yet. King County Emergency Medical Services section supervisor Michele Plorde wasn't sure when the report would be submitted, but said Sims ultimately decide whether to continue King County Medic One service in south King County.

New oversight could represent a big change for firefighters, especially those close to retirement.

"It's absolutely feasible. We've shown it can work. It's a good use or our money," Federal Way Fire spokeswoman Monica Colby said. "But the decision is up to the county. Unless they can work out how to make people happy, it's probably not going to happen."

King County Medic One paramedics are part of the state retirement system, which allows full retirement at age 65. If a south King County entity took over, paramedics would be able to enroll in the Law Enforcement Officers and Firefighters retirement system, with a potential retirement age of 53.

"The reason it's probably not going to happen is because of retirement pensions," Colby said.

In 2001, King County voters approved a six-year levy to fund King County Emergency Medical Services, which distributes the funding for paramedic service to several cities, except Seattle, and King County Medic One, which provides paramedic coverage in south King County.

Fire departments with their own paramedic service, like Seattle, Shoreline, Bellevue and Redmond, receive a cut of the countywide EMS levy to run their paramedic programs.

According to the feasibility study, south King County could successfully run its own paramedic program like Seattle, Shoreline and the Eastside cities. Both Federal Way and Kent are capable of providing paramedic service, according to the study, and if they were to take over, they could reduce overhead costs by working together.

"We're looking at the way Seattle and Bellevue run their medic programs," Colby said. "We're just looking at what everyone is doing."

The operating budget for King County Medic One was almost $9 million in 2003; the county budgeted $10 million for 2004. There are 68 paramedics working at King County Medic One, but eight are in supervisory positions, leaving 60 to "staff the trucks," Plorde said.

King County Medic One paramedics are stationed at two Federal Way fire stations.

Federal Way firefighters and EMTs respond to most of the calls in the city, but if something very serious happens, like a heart attack or a major car crash, dispatch calls out paramedics, too.

Firefighter EMTs aren't allowed to do anything invasive, like set up IV lines or use defibrillators, but they can do some prep work and stabilize the patient until a paramedic arrives.

If a situation ends up being less serious than initially thought, the firefighters can cancel the paramedics and handle it themselves. If a situation turns out to be more serious than expected, firefighters can call dispatch to have a paramedic unit sent.

Colby said very little would change if south King County took over paramedic coverage from King County Medic One. About the only difference employees and consumers would see right away would be where the levy money went and who administered it. Later, firefighters might see a difference in their retirement plans and their mobility across fields.

"In the future, people would be able to cross over easier, if a firefighter wanted to become a paramedic," Colby said. Currently, a Federal Way firefighter would have to quit and get a job at King County Medic One to be able to use his or her paramedic skills. Even if a firefighter EMT has paramedic training, he or she only can function as an EMT while on-duty.

In addition, Colby said a change in administration wouldn't affect those already working at King County Medic One. There wouldn't be any lay-offs, she said, "just a new boss."

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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