Fire-EMS: Debating a potential merger
Make no mistake, your vote this May will influence whether ambulance and fire services in Jefferson County merge. When you elect three Jefferson County Emergency Medical Services Board members, you'll either vote for incumbents who oppose merging the two agencies, or their challengers who support consolidating ambulance and fire.
Incumbents John Curnutt, Patricia Neff and Louise Muir have served for decades on the Emergency Medical Services Board, unopposed until this election, and all steadfastly oppose a merger. Their challengers, Janet Brown, Joe Krenowicz and Mike Ahern, are running for the board specifically because they favor a merger.
The view from the leadership
Jefferson County EMS Chief Mike Lepin and Jefferson County Fire District Board Chair Dustin Miller have each watched this consolidation contest wage and wane over the past decades.
Lepin has worked in the field for 35 years in large cities and small cities, in private systems and public, including working with the Jefferson County Fire District.
"You can make any system work," says Lepin, including a consolidated district. "It can be effective because it obviously works in Bend, Redmond and Prineville." But Lepin doesn't wholeheartedly endorse consolidating. "I think in the long run, it's not the less expensive way. Some of the issues could be handled just by training."
Miller started his career as a student with the fire district, then with the EMS. He worked for six years with Warm Springs Fire and Safety and has spent the last 14 years with Redmond Fire and Rescue, a consolidated district, currently serving as the EMS captain in charge of operations and training.
"Do I think that together they could provide a better service? Yes," says Miller. "I think there are some ways we can use personnel to our benefit."
Where we are now
Miller says staffing at the fire district hasn't changed since he worked there as a student in 1998. "Five employees work Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.," says Miller. Outside of those hours, the district depends on volunteers. "And at 5:01 p.m. if there's an emergency, you may be waiting a few minutes for a fire truck to show up to your house."
"We used to go home at nights and weekends." Lepin says the district used to require employees live within two miles of the EMS hall. "My big push was to staff 24/7. We improved our EMS response."
"It was a very positive thing they did organizationally to change their response model and require their folks to be in-station," says Miller.
If the services combine, both fire and EMS would staff around the clock with personnel trained and equipped to fight fires and handle medical calls.
"We had a car accident the other day," says Miller of a Redmond incident. "The paramedics weren't just standing back for the patient. They were running the Jaws of Life."
EMS responded to 2,999 calls last year, more than triple the calls the fire district responded to, 959 calls for the year. Sometimes all EMS ambulances are busy on calls, while fire district paramedics sit idle at the station with no one to answer a fourth call, which could be anything from a broken leg to a heart attack.
"We don't hear the ambulance calls because we're on different frequencies," says Miller. "Right now, the EMS could be on four calls and the fire department has no idea."
Lepin says the two agencies are working on getting a single radio frequency both agencies can use.
In a consolidated system, all on-duty personnel could respond to fire and medical emergencies.
"They will run thin at times. Redmond runs thin at times, Crooked River Ranch runs thin at times," says Miller, "but what we have in Central Oregon is mutual aid where if there's a fire in Crooked River Ranch or there's a medical in Powell Butte, Redmond will automatically send, without asking questions, we send resources."
When you need an ambulance, EMS bills you or your insurance for the service. People who subscribe to the service, Pro Med, for $60 a year get free ambulance service.
If you live in the Jefferson County Fire District Service area and you have a fire emergency, your property taxes pay for the service. If you live outside of the service area, and your house is on fire, the district firefighters will not respond unless you pay their costs.
"I don't see that changing," says Miller. "I feel it's a commonsense policy that we shouldn't overextend our resources outside of the fire district to protect property not covered by taxpayers. If there's life involved, that's a different story."
The EMS Ambulance Service Area covers more territory than the fire district service area. State law requires the entire state get ambulance service and assigns ASAs accordingly. Property taxes and response times define fire districts, which in this case is significantly smaller. In a consolidated plan, the fire service and the EMS service area would most likely remain the same.
Would a consolidated district cost more or less?
"You could take the current amount of employees," says Miller, "combine them and come up with an organization without hiring more people." Miller says combining agencies creates some economies by eliminating duplicated costs.
Both Miller and Lepin think each shift should include six to seven people to staff two ambulances and one fire engine.
Lepin says that level of staffing will cost more money. "I think their plan could be the starting place, but the community needs to know it's going to cost more. I firmly believe they're going to have to ask for more money in taxes."
In fact, a 2019 study by Matrix Consulting Group recommends consolidating the two agencies, but also recommends asking for more tax support.
Miller says the fire district will eventually ask for more taxes whether it consolidates with EMS or not.
"At some point, the fire district is going to have to ask for money. We have an aging fleet that is not getting any younger. And unfortunately, the cost of buying a fire truck is just out of our budget."
Employees keep their jobs
"There are people who worry that their job will be in jeopardy," says Miller, "and I don't see that. There's a spot for everybody."
State law requires employees keep their jobs when two entities combine. Some paramedics may need fire training, and firefighters may need medical training.
Lepin thinks the combined agency will need to raise employee pay to compete with other agencies in the region. "I want what's best for my people here," says Lepin. "I want them to know they're cared for and that I appreciate them."
Forum Thursday, April 15
Jefferson County EMS is proud of where the agency has come. From the days of fundraisers, the agency has gone through financial ups and downs. Now they're on solid financial ground while providing service day and night.
"We're doing well and we're improving. We've been slowly improving," says Lepin. "Where I see the future of my place right now is pay is going to improve, our coverage is going to improve."
Miller believes round-the-clock fire service serves the community best, something that can only be achieved by merging the companies. The EMS board has resisted talking about merging.
"We're here and would love to have the conversation," says Miller. "If it works out, fine. If not, the fire department will still be here tomorrow answering your calls."
Candidates will voice their arguments at a forum Thursday night at 6 p.m. at Madras' Performing Arts Center.
JCEMS candidate forum details
View the forum on Facebook at Facebook.com/MadrasJeffersonCountyChamber. The event will be recorded and available for later viewing.
Six people are running for three Jefferson County Emergency Medical Services District positions. Janet Brown is running against incumbent John Curnutt for position 1. Incumbent Patricia Neff faces Joe Krenowicz in position 2. Mike Ahern is running against incumbent Louise Muir for position 4.
The Madras Aquatic Center and Education Service District candidate virtual forum will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 22.
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