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Other communities have recently had EMS-fire mergers; issue at core of upcoming vote

PAT KRUIS/MADRAS PIONEER
 - A vehicle from the Jefferson County Fire District No. 1, left, and an ambulance from the Jefferson County EMS both responded to a recent incident in Madras. The two emergency services are independent of each other; the question of a potential merger between the two is at the heart of the race for three positions on the EMS Board.

When you call 911 for a medical emergency in Madras, the ambulance and staff are ready to roll 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

When you call 911 for a fire emergency in Madras past 5 p.m. or on weekends, you're depending on volunteers to get to the fire station before they roll on your call.

Ambulance and fire are separate entities in Jefferson County.

The large majority of communities around the state combine fire and emergency medical services to provide 24/7 staffing for both fire and ambulance.

This May, the EMS Board election hinges on the question of merging the two services.

Incumbents John Curnutt, Louise Muir and Pat Neff want the two agencies to stay separate.

Their challengers, Janet Brown, Mike Ahern and Joe Krenowicz, believe merging the agencies would serve the community better.

Perhaps there's something to learn from how other communities provide emergency services.

Jefferson County Fire District No. 1 and Jefferson County EMS

Between fire and medical, Jefferson County handles about 4,000 calls a year. The lion's share, about 75%, are medical calls.

The ambulance service, EMS, has 13 full-time and 12 part-time employees and 14 volunteers. Jefferson County EMS staffs its rigs around the clock, seven days a week. EMS bills for its services and does not depend on local tax dollars.

Jefferson County Fire District No. 1 normally has five paid firefighters. The crew is currently down to four while the board works to fill the position of chief. Six student interns and 30 to 35 volunteers support the staff. Crews man the fire hall Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Nights and weekends the designated duty officer and volunteers respond from home. Local tax dollars pay for fire service in the county.

Tillamook Fire District

In Tillamook, fire and ambulance operate separately. The hospital, Adventist health, runs the ambulance service. It is considered a private ambulance service.

Tillamook Fire covers 200 square miles and handles between 800 and 900 calls a year, about 40 to 45% of those calls are medical.

The team consists of four paid staff, who are all cross-trained for both fire and medical, and 45 volunteers. About half of the volunteers have cross training.

Tillamook staffs the fire hall seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Beyond those hours, the designated duty officer and volunteers respond from their homes.

"We respond to extremely serious medical calls, and when EMS requests additional help," says Tillamook Fire Chief Daron Bement. "If we went on every medical call, we would completely overtax our volunteers."

"What we have works currently," says Bement. He appreciates that each community needs to determine how to best deliver emergency services.

Crooked River Ranch Fire and Rescue

Crooked River Ranch Fire and Rescue handles about 600 calls a year, 80% of those calls are for medical issues.

CRRF&R operates both fire and ambulance as one agency with six paid staff, an administrative assistant and five employees all cross trained for both medical and fire emergencies. Six student interns also work for the agency and respond to calls when not in school or otherwise off duty. Twenty-five volunteers fill out the ranks.

Funding for emergency services on Crooked River Ranch comes from a combination of taxes and EMS services fees. Chief Harry Ward says the agency would not be able to afford 24/7 fire coverage without the revenue from EMS, and depending on another district for ambulance service would not provide the same level of service to Ranch residents.

"The closest station is Terrebonne, which involves a 15- to 20-minute drive to get out here," says Ward. "On the north end of the ranch, almost a 30-minute response."

CCRF&R can respond to most places on the Ranch within five minutes.

"I think with the geography and distance, a combined agency makes sense for the Ranch," says Ward, but he doesn't necessarily think every community needs to combine services. "It depends on the reason," says Ward. "If services are good now, is there a need to merge?"

East Umatilla Fire and Rescue

A year ago, voters in east Umatilla County voted to consolidate three smaller fire districts into one large district covering 420 square miles.

The district handles about 435 calls a year, again, 80 to 90% of the calls are for medical emergencies.

The unified fire district has a board, and the health district which runs the ambulance service has a separate board. The boards hold consecutive meetings on the same night at the same location, so members of the fire board and the health board can attend each other's meetings.

"There's a very strong intoxicating-like spirit of cooperation right now," says East Umatilla Fire Chief Dave Baty. "Everybody really wants to help everyone else be their best."

Before the fire districts unified, fire volunteers would respond to ambulance calls only if requested by paramedics after the ambulance arrived on the scene.

Now, the two services have an automatic aid agreement. Both agencies respond immediately to calls and stay until it's clear they're not needed.

"The more people there, the less chance of somebody getting injured, the better chance you have for someone getting out of the car and into the back of the ambulance quicker," says Baty. "It all works better."

Umatilla County Fire District No. 1

The Umatilla County Fire District has been merged with its ambulance service for more than 40 years.

The agency takes 5,000 calls a year, 88% of which are medical.

"When you put it together, you have a more effective use of your money and your personnel," says Chief Scott Stanton. "That's what it comes down to is resource management."

Stanton staffs the agency with 27 people, nine people on each of three shifts, adding three interns per shift. The crews work 48 hours on and have 96 hours off. Twenty-five volunteers augment the staff.

Outlying areas depend on Quick Response Teams, personnel who arrive at the scene and provide first aid until the ambulance crew arrives.

"Once integrated, you have better interoperability and better communication. You're one entity and you're able to be more efficient," says Stanton. "So that could translate into a better chance to save lives."

Hood River Fire and EMS

Fire and ambulance services operate under one umbrella in Hood River. Leonard Damian serves as chief over both.

"You don't need two managers, two administrative assistants, two bookkeepers, two accountants, two payrolls, two human resources," says Damian. "You're going to get more people to serve the public for the same dollar because you're going to be able to take those dollars you would have spent on duplication of services and put them in the staff."

Hood River staffs both fire and ambulance round the clock with between four and five people per shift. Crews work 48 hours on, 96 hours off.

All the career staff at Hood River Fire and EMS are cross trained for both fire and EMS. Some volunteers focus on fire, other volunteer specialize in EMS.

As in most communities, medical calls make up 85 to 88% of emergency calls in Hood River. Last year, there were 1,664 calls. EMS charges fees for its services. Tax dollars pay for the fire service. Revenue from EMS helps pay for fire service staffing.

"If we did not run the ambulance service here, I would say a third of our fire department would have to go," says Damian, "because they're paid for by EMS."

Damian observes politics often complicate the decision to merge or not to merge fire and EMS.

"Most of these things boil down to some who don't want to let go of something, and those who have something to gain," says Damian. "That's just human dynamics. If somebody wants to marry another person and the other person doesn't want to get married, how's that going to go?"

Jefferson County can't afford round the clock fire service, Damian surmises, because its taxing district isn't big enough. Merging might make 24/7 fire service possible.

"There comes a breaking point for a community to decide," says Damian, "how they want their services delivered."


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