Things are good at San Juan Island Fire and Rescue, according to Chief Norvin Collins, and he said he’s interested in seeing what life will be like for emergency services post-COVID-19.
“Things were fine before — doing all-hazard, getting out and taking care of the community,” Collins, a firefighter with three decades of experience, said. “COVID has really demonstrated the power of the fire service and emergency services. What the community needs and how we can fill that role from keeping everything together; responding and taking care of the community; not only here but on all of our islands.”
At the fire station located at 1011 Mullis St. in Friday Harbor, the current pandemic has caused a change in procedures and enhanced inter-island communications among fire districts.
“We all work together,” Collins said.
An example of the inter-island cooperation, Collins explained, is the reception of an $823,000 grant to buy new air packs for San Juan, Orcas and Lopez islands.
“We were awarded the largest grant award for the state of Washington to buy new air packs for all of us. … And now we’re going to have consistency throughout the whole county,” Collins said. “Why wouldn’t we play together? We’re going to take care of everybody and we’re small enough that we have to rely on each other, so let’s!”
SJIF&R also created a 24-hour a day staffing model amid the outbreak of disease, Collins explained.
“This is the time,” Collins said. “We limit the exposure of the volunteers yet we increase the service level to the community.”
Since the last case of COVID-19 in San Juan County was reported in mid-April, Collins said the station has been able to engage more volunteers while maintaining the same level of protection it established since the beginning outbreak. The station is once again a three-person engine company with two spots on the truck available to volunteers each time it rolls.
“From the big picture perspective, it’s good and it’s given us some ideas of how we can better take care of the community in the future,” Collins said.
Because of COVID-19, Collins noted that call levels are down. He added that, as would be expected with everyone staying home due to the non-essential travel order, traffic accidents were down.
“Overall, as a positive kudos to our community, they distanced, they wore their masks. You look at the numbers of what potentially could have been, people did what they should have done,” Collins said. “They followed the directions that they were given. … People were listening and doing it, so call volume was down.”
Meanwhile, during the stay home order, Collins wanted his fire crew to remain as visible to the community as possible to reassure the community that emergency service providers were still there to take care of them. One way of staying present in the community was by providing surgical masks to businesses that needed them for their employees.
“We want to try to reduce the impact, financially,” Collins said. “If you can’t get masks, and that’s what’s holding you back, that’s OK, we’ve got you covered!”
Collins explained that in the future he would like to see expanded community risk reduction and education offered by SJIF&R.
COVID-19 changed the way the station ran, Collin said. The department was unable to run drills for two months and had to adjust to remote and online training.
“Well, that’s going to unlock additional opportunities as we go into the future,” Collins said, adding that the volunteers and staff will be able to spend more time actually training while doing the classroom work at home. “That’s going to increase their skill set.”
Now, SJIF&R is waiting to see what the future brings.
COVID-19 brought an increase in emergency responders wearing masks, gowns and shields when responding to calls. The department does twice-a-shift health checks — once at the beginning and once halfway through to ensure their staff and volunteers aren’t starting to feel unwell.
“How do we take better care of the community? That’s by looking forward,” Collins said.
There is a perception on the island, according to Collins, that San Juan Island Emergency Medical Services is the only entity that provides EMS on San Juan Island. He said that isn’t accurate, adding that a medic has always been onboard a SJIF&R truck.
“That’s not true. It wasn’t true before and it was never true in between,” Collins said. “Fire’s always provided EMS care, they just didn’t transport the patient from the scene to the hospital; or hospital to the airstrip — whatever the case may be.”
Most EMTs are also firefighters, Collins explained.
According to Collins, more than half of the island’s EMS and firefighters are cross-trained and work or volunteer at both of the agencies.
“They want to take care of the community,” Collins said.
SJIF&R Public Information Officer Chuck Dalldorf added, “San Juan Island is unique in as much as there are two emergency organization providers versus the other islands.”
Collins and Dalldorf are both in support of an integrated fire and EMS agency on San Juan Island. Orcas and Lopez both have combined departments.
“From a citizen’s perspective, [they see:] faster response times; similar quality of care; realistically it’s the same people — it’s just more of a systems approach,” Collins said.
In April 2019, a Citizen’s Advisory Group concluded in a 117-page report that the SJIF&R and SJIEMS should integrate into one agency within two years. The five members of the CAG were selected by the fire district, SJI EMS and the Town of Friday Harbor in April 2018 to consider the merger — Dalldorf was the chair of the committee.
Following the recommendations of the CAG, an integration steering committee was formed, which included Collins; SJIEMS Interim-Chief Karl Kuetzing; Town of Friday Harbor Administrator Duncan Wilson; SJIF&R Commissioner Frank Cardinale; and San Juan County Public Hospital District No. 1 Commissioner Anna Lisa Lindstrum, who is now serving as chairperson.
On Nov. 12, 2019, three public hospital district commissioners — all of whom are no longer on the board — voted to approve an interlocal agreement with the fire district to begin merging of the two entities’ administrative departments. Lindstrum voted against the ILA. Noting hesitation of the sole remaining and four incoming PHD commissioners, Collins explained, the SJIF&R Commissioners elected to table the ILA until further discussion and education could be had.
“We paused it to be respectful, let them come up to speed,” Collins said.
On May 5, the Public Hospital District announced it was temporarily suspending the integration process. Collins said the fire district was caught off guard.
“We’re not stopping. … Just because they paused, we’re continuing forward,” Collins said. “This isn’t about looking in the past, this is about looking at COVID, this is looking at what is right for the community, and we’re going to continue to go forward in taking care of the community from a holistic standpoint. It doesn’t change. We’re not stopping responding on calls. We’ve always responded on EMS calls, we’re going to continue to respond on calls and take care of the community. We’re still going to work in partnership, hand-in-hand with San Juan Island EMS from the ambulance service side of things, and we’re going to take care of the community. Bottom line.”
Collins added he is optimistic about the integration resuming.
“In the end, we’ll get there, but time is of the essence,” Dalldorf added. “Emergency services is all about time.”
Dalldorf noted that it’s been more than a year since the CAG. Collins added that in the five months since the new hospital district commissioners have been in office, the district has not reached out to speak to the fire district.
“It’s good governance, it’s better fiscal management and it’s better overall care for the community,” Collins said. “COVID demonstrates why we need to come together because it’s the proper care for the community. … Bringing these two organizations together is good governance; it’s how you take care of the community; it’s more cost-effective; and it’s the same people.”
Collins said that by combining fire and EMS, the island will eliminate duplicity and increase the cost-effectiveness of having a combined agency.
“If you put these two organizations together you have a stable tax-base that takes care of the personnel, takes care of the all-hazard stuff and you let the fee for service take care of the ambulance transport side of things,” Collins said.
Dalldorf added, “And that’s why it’s the national model and the state model and the San Juan Islands model — except for us.”