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South County Fire Districts Consider Mutual Aid Unit

For residents living along Chuckanut Drive, Lake Samish and other rural areas in the southwest corner of Whatcom County, getting an ambulance to your door promptly in a medical emergency isn't a sure thing.

Many of the smaller fire districts scattered throughout the area are volunteer- based, meaning the emergency medic you need may be miles away at a full-time job or sitting down to eat dinner when you dial 911.

To improve service in these areas, four fire districts are considering working together to ensure that medics are heading out the door and toward your house as soon as you give the dispatcher your information.

Among districts planning to participate:

Whatcom County Fire District No. 2, in the Sudden Valley and Geneva areas;

No. 6, in the Chuckanut Drive area; No. 9, in the Lake Samish area;

No. 10, in the Yew Street Road area.

District 18, at the south end of Lake Whatcom, decided not to be involved in the discussions.

Dave Ralston, chief of Districts 2 and 10, said if commissioners of each district sign the deal in November, an aid unit made up of staff from all of the districts would be on duty at least from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. If approved, the deal would go into effect Jan. 1.

If the program succeeds, it could lead to even more cooperation between the districts, including the creation of a South region Fire Authority, a separate taxing district that would expand the program.

Officials plan to pitch the fire authority idea to voters in November 2008. Fred Wefer, chief of districts 6 and 9, said next year's agreement is seen as a trial run.

"We're getting our feet wet," Wefer said. "Voters are a little more educated (after the EMS levy); they want stats and costs. ... This way we will have stats for people."

Q:What kind of calls would the unit respond to?

A:For now, the unit would be focused on responding to basic life support calls -- such as a broken arm or minor burn -- that don't require calling a Whatcom Medic One paramedic from Bellingham. The unit would be available for more major calls as well.

Q:Why is this necessary?

A:The districts must bear the load of their less critical calls beginning next year, when the Medic One program stops guaranteeing a response to them and focuses on incidents that require paramedics and an advanced life support response.

Q:Who would staff this extra unit?

A:Two people are needed to staff the unit. Organizers plan to hire a fulltime medic by March 1. The rest of the positions would be filled by volunteers from the districts.

Q:How much would it cost?

A:Tentative budget numbers indicate the program would cost around $214,000 a year, although $110,000 of that would be recouped when patients are billed. The remaining $104,000 would be paid for from the districts' reserve funds, meaning taxpayers wouldn't pay more now.

Each district would pay its share of the $104,000 according to its portion of the total assessed property value. District 2 would pay for approximately 62 percent, because that district contains more population and thus has more aid calls.

Q:What will a unit based in Geneva do for those who live in outlying areas, such as the south end of Lake Samish or Chuckanut Drive?

A:Organizers say that at the least, those people will have a guarantee that help is on the way when they call 911 -- something they don't always have right now.

"A lot of (volunteers) have full-time jobs," Wefer said. "You may not even get a response. It doesn't happen often, but it happens."

Wefer said weekday business hours, when those volunteers are often at work, are most commonly the time that his districts have problems responding. Having the new unit on duty during those hours next year will be a big help.

Q:Will taking money and staff from the current districts hurt in those districts?

A:Ralston and Wefer emphasized the new unit wouldn't replace any current services, but act as a supplement only.

"You're still getting a response from the closest unit," Ralston said.

Q:Why can't my district do this on its own?

A:For rural, volunteer-based fire districts, it doesn't make financial sense. Having enough personnel on duty to staff an aid car in District 6, which responded to 65 calls in 2006, would require a massive tax increase.

"This is the only way we're going to be able to provide this level of service," Wefer said. "If we tried to do this on our own, taxes would go through the roof."

Q:What led to this idea?

A.For many of the firefighters, commissioners and chiefs who have been discussing cooperation for the last several years, this is the next step.

The districts, Whatcom County Fire District 18 included, already have mutual aid agreements, meaning they will respond to each others' districts if called for backup.

Districts 2, 6, 9 and 10 also began training together two years ago to increase their ability to work together on the same calls.

The districts also applied together for a group rate on their insurance coverage a year and a half ago, which saves them each $1,000 a year, Wefer said.

Q:Where does the South Region Fire Authority idea fit into this?

A:The group is planning to pitch the authority plan to voters in November 2008. If approved, it would enable the group to keep the combined aid unit project alive throughout 2009 and hire additional staff to make the unit available around the clock.

By 2011, the current plan calls for the unit to be moved from the Geneva station to a more central location for faster response to outlying areas.

The exact cost of the proposal has yet to be determined, but organizers have discussed a levy of 20 cents per $1,000 in assessed property value. For the owner of a $300,000 home, that would mean a $60 annual tax increase.

Reach Caleb Heeringa at 715-2264 or caleb.heeringa@bellinghamherald.com

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