How many firefighters does it take to respond to a toothache?
Soon, maybe only one.
City administrators and the Spokane Firefighters Union announced Monday that they have agreed - on a trial basis - to create one-person units using SUVs to respond to 911 calls for problems likely to be non-life-threatening.
Three one-person units will be on duty from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, when calls for help peak.
The agreement marks the first time in decades that the city will add extra firefighters for regular day shifts. The program will increase the number of firefighters on duty to 61, up from 58 when the units are operating.
The agreement signals a shift in the position of the union, which has generally opposed firefighting shifts that veered from 24 hours on-duty and 48 off. But the deal creates, after a long decline in the number of firefighters, the possibility of adding resources.
The trial, which will be covered within the Fire Department's existing $45 million budget, will start in September and last three to six months so officials can decide if it should be maintained, eliminated or expanded.
"We really think that given six months to evaluate and work together, that we can come up with a program that works for everybody," said Don Waller, fire union president. "It puts us on a path to find a solution for the citizens."
The deal resulted from negotiations last week to resolve an alleged unfair labor practice complaint that the union, Local 29, of the International Association of Fire Fighters, filed with the state Public Employment Relations Commission. The union challenged the city's decision to send three-person fire engine companies to medical calls in SUVs or ambulance-like trucks.
Until this year, Spokane, like most fire departments, sent firefighters to all medical calls in fire trucks so that they could respond to fires without having to return to a station to switch trucks. Union leaders said leaving stations without fire engines would increase response times. Administrators argued that the call volume from medical calls had grown so much that they could no longer justify sending engines to every one.
Under the trial program, the city will continue to send at least some fire engine crews to medical calls without fire trucks. But officials expect the new one-person crews to handle many calls, allowing fire engines to stay available more often.
The new units will drive three SUVs already owned by the city, including one assigned to Fire Chief Bobby Williams. If all new shifts were filled with overtime, the trial would cost about $225,000. But Williams said overtime won't be needed as often in the fall and winter, when there's less demand for vacation.
The city plans to use only firefighters trained as paramedics in the new units.
They will be housed at:
Station No. 1, 44 W. Riverside Ave.
Station No. 11, 3214 S. Perry St.
Station No. 13, 1118 W. Wellesley Ave.
Williams said 50 or more kinds of calls can be handled by the new one-person units. They include sore throats that don't involve breathing problems, rashes and some kinds of falls.
The creation of one-person units is one of about a dozen recommendations in the final report released today by a mayoral task force examining fire service. City Councilman Steve Salvatori, who led the group, said the recommendation suggests that the one-person units be used every day.
Williams said he's not aware of another city using one-person units. The concept is based on a program started in 2010 by the Tualatin Valley Fire and Rescue District in suburban Portland.
"I'm glad that everybody was willing to give this a shot," Williams said. "I don't see our call volume going down."
Medical calls are up between 5 and 10 percent this year, he said.