EMS-fire merger: Council asks EMS to rethink stance
In July, Jefferson County Emergency Medical Services opted out of participation in a task force to discuss the future of fire and emergency services in the county. Now, the city, county and fire department are asking EMS to reconsider.
At the Aug. 27 meeting of the Madras City Council, the council unanimously approved a letter to the Jefferson County EMS Board of Directors requesting that JCEMS participate in the task force.
The July decision by JCEMS followed a 15-month feasibility study that looked into the possibility of a merger between the Jefferson County Fire District and JCEMS.
In the 191-page report, Matrix Consulting Group made a variety of recommendations, including that the county, fire district and EMS all work with the county's dispatch center, Frontier 911, to improve processing and dispatching of emergency calls, that both districts continue to work on improving turnout times, and that the two districts move forward with seeking voter approval for a single emergency service district.
After the initial letter from JCEMS to the city, county and fire department, the county drafted a statement encouraging JCEMS and JCFD "to proceed down a path to develop 'one agency' model for fire and EMS services."
Fire District Board Chairman Chris Dupont wrote back to JCEMS stressing, "It is our hope and desire to work together with JCEMS as our partner. We feel that the best course of action would be to combine our agencies through a task force to further investigate what a merger would potentially look like, and how that would play into the needs of our community."
That prompted a response from JCEMS Board Chairman John Curnutt noting that the board was unanimous "in our feeling that our two districts are better apart."
"We believe we can provide the community the same quality care as a separate district when compared to what is recommended in the feasibility study without the burden of increased taxes from the citizens we serve as we have done in the past," Curnutt wrote.
"One of the options listed in the report, if we are to remain separate, is for the fire district to request an increase in tax funds," he continued. "We support this option. The Jefferson County Fire District provides an excellent service to our community and should receive more stable funding in the future."
At the council meeting, City Administrator Gus Burril said that the city, county, fire and ambulance have been in communication since June. When JCEMS declined to participate in the task force, he felt the City Council should respond.
"The public's interest hasn't necessarily been spoken to by this board," he said.
Councilor Royce Embanks, who was mayor at the time the study was commissioned, said that he's been on the council since 2003, and "we've been kicking this down the road," since then. "It's more about safety than anything."
Both JCEMS Chief Mike Lepin and JCFD Chief Brian Huff pointed out issues with some of the data in the report, such as in response times.
"My crews already stay at the station 24/7; I don't know how I can improve response times more," said Lepin.
The report also had concerns about the financial sustainability of JCEMS, which was struggling financially when the report was commissioned in March 2018. Lepin pointed out that their circumstances had changed as a result of improved billing practices.
"My board, they're confident that we're not going to be a tax burden to the county," he said. "The fire district definitely needs more financial backing and support. My board supports that."
Huff said that one of the problems with the study was that the consultants didn't spend enough time in the community, which might have improved data.
"In the future, speaking for the fire department," he said, "at some point, the county won't support a volunteer fire department."
Because of public employee retirement costs and health care costs, he said, "We'll start going backward."
Councilor Jennifer Holcomb said that she feels that it's important for JCEMS to be part of the task force. "If you're not on the task force, you're not there to make sure the data is right."
Gus Burril, city administrator, said he was frustrated by the fact that the study failed to determine how often JCEMS requires mutual aid from Warm Springs EMS.
"That has an impact as we grow," he said. "If there's some stress now, if we grow, we just add to it. We need to find out how many times were are calling for mutual aid. We need to trend this to see if we're getting better or worse."
Mayor Richard Ladeby added, "We've already put a considerable amount of time and energy into this. I'd hate to see it lost."
The council approved a letter to the JCEMS board asking for participation in the task force.
"Public resources were utilized to study the current emergency service levels for fire and EMS which identified deficiencies that still need to be addressed. To do nothing does not serve the public's best interest in providing quality fire and EMS services in a growing and modern community. We believe the recommended Task Force should be formed to address these deficiencies and concerns," the letter states.
The fire district, city and county have all agreed to participate, and the letter, signed by Ladeby, urges JCEMS to participate, as well. "We hope you will participate in this important effort to address emergency response in our community."
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