Firefighters can become real heroes by changing | Letters
August 3, 2012 · Updated 3:59 PM
After carefully reviewing the 4,000-plus responses made by South King Fire and Rescue during the first quarter of 2012 (data courtesy of Valley 911), it is clear that major changes are necessary in order to meet the true needs of our community.
Across the nation, other communities are questioning fire departments and their outmoded delivery model, yet the firefighters union and administrations continue to resist change.
After my last letter to the editor, I noted many letters in support of the fire department. Please understand that I am not against fire departments. I am against inappropriate use of equipment, inappropriate use of my taxpayer dollars, waste and resistance to change.
I remind you all that this is an incredible opportunity to create a new model that would set national (as well as international) standards for emergency services.
Several substantial, yet very reasonable changes could fill most of the budget shortfall without raising $3.5 million in new taxes (financials are derived with rudimentary mathematics and the fire departments own financials). The importance of change is validated when you consider that the average response costs taxpayers nearly $1,500 (a $22.2 million budget divided by 15,000 calls — a simplified calculation).
Significantly (and predictably), a minimum of 50 percent of all calls were for basic life support. With proper screening by 911 operators, these calls could be responded to by a medical team staffing an appropriately stocked SUV or aid unit (or two, if more staff is needed) staffed with two people instead of a $500,000 fire or ladder truck with three or more firefighters. If a fire happens, the EMS workers staffing the aid unit could meet the fire truck on the scene. Such a change would potentially save $50,000 annually in fuel and $800,000 of personnel costs.
Given that 80 percent of the calls fall between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. (the length of two 8-hour shifts), SKFR should adopt staffing models similar to hospitals that staff according to demand (gone are the need for EMS workers to work a 24 hour shift — why staff so heavily on night shift when demand is lower?). Even a 2 percent reduction in personnel costs would save taxpayers $400,000 annually. Next, consider dispatching private ambulance services to medical calls that are dispatched as non-urgent. These private ambulance services can also provide backup on more urgent calls (a current practice) and be ready to transport patients to the hospital quickly, freeing up the EMS workers for their next call. This change could save taxpayers up to $800,000 annually. Another option (which will certainly generate comment) is to charge those who use the service. A token $50 per response charge would generate more than $500,000 annually. Such a charge could be waived at SKFR’s discretion (e.g. for financially destitute individuals or for those who are transported to the hospital).
This would potentially reduce the hundreds of false alarms (6 percent of calls) and non-emergency responses (6 percent-plus) each month. If SKFR could cut these calls in half, it would save $672,000 annually.
Finally, provide financial incentives to employees who find more cost effective methods of providing service. The men and women on the front lines are best suited to identify areas of improvement. A 5 percent improvement in efficiency could save taxpayers at least $1 million annually.
Combined, all of these changes could save taxpayers an estimated $3.6 million annually.
SKFR does have a budget problem, but it’s a problem that won’t be fixed with more revenue. It’s time for our community to demand appropriate response to what is now a crisis. We cannot continue to fund a fire department out of a nostalgia-based “hero as firefighter” motif. I’ve heard it said that if nothing changes, nothing changes. I’ve also heard that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Again, I plead with our fire SKFR leaders — be a true “hero” and contemplate change. Consider the possibilities and opportunities for taking this solution to a national audience.
My solutions may be deemed radical by some, but I am at least searching for solutions. The only solution that the SKFR seems to offers repeatedly (whenever money is needed) is the removal of additional aid units and a reduction in staff if we do not approve their levy.
The aid units are the ones most necessary to the community, according to their own statistics. Their response is one of coercion and this cannot be tolerated. I challenge the department to begin the task of searching for a new, improved model.
Valerie Olson, Federal Way