With the support of the Citizen’s Advisory Gorup, the merger of San Juan Island’s fire and emergency medical services creeps toward fruition. On Tuesday, April 2, the committee, which consists of five representatives, presented its recommendation at a joint meeting of the San Juan County Public Hospital District No. 1 board and the San Juan County Fire Protection District No. 3 commissioners.
“We’re pleased to be here with our report for your review,” said Chuck Dalldorf, the group’s chairperson and representative for the Town of Friday Harbor. “We really spent a lot of time thinking about the future.”
The group was created in April 2018 by the two boards and the town. Each of the three entities selected someone to represent its organization and two additional at-large members were chosen.
At the meeting, Dalldorf conceded that the group may have taken longer than the expected time to complete its report. The group’s goal in the 117-page report was to create something readable and easy to understand for anyone who picks up the document. He added that the group’s recommendation is to combine the fire and EMS services within the next two years.
Conditions that must first be met to facilitate a merger, according to group member-at-large Mark Tompkins, include having all non-administrative staff cross-trained in fire and EMS, allowing for a grace period for the training of existing employees (this requirement does not include volunteers); full-time staff station-based with 27/7 coverage, meaning one firefighter/EMT and one firefighter/paramedic on the clock at all times; a capital improvement plan; metrics and finances recorded and presented regularly; the fire commission expanding to a five-person board; and the medical director Dr. Michael Sullivan available for, and attend, a quarterly hospital district board meeting and give a report on that quarter’s service levels. The group also suggested that a separate operational budget is established for fire and EMS and additional implementation recommendations.
“There is all kinds of stuff going on here,” George Johnson, group member representing the public hospital district, said. “You don’t just drive the trucks over here, peel the label off the door and put something different on it. It’s a whole lot more than that.”
Johnson pointed out a gray area in San Juan Island EMS’ coverage that the fire district does not. While EMS provides services on San Juan Island, as well as Brown, Henry, Pearl, Speiden, Johns and Stuart islands, the fire department only provides to San Juan, Brown and Pearl Islands. Friday Harbor is contracted with the fire district and therefore it isn’t included in the district’s property tax levy, it is paid for by part of the town’s property taxes.
“Make it one levy, one district and merged department of EMS and fire,” Johnson said.
The group concluded that the best plan of action would be for the fire district to annex the town and eliminate the contract that exists, Johnson explained. He added that the group suggested the organization could slowly eliminate the EMS levy and approve a fire lid lift to replace the funds needed for EMS.
The Town of Friday Harbor could potentially reduce its property tax because of the dissolution of the contract with fire. The public would have to vote on these proposed changes.
“We spent a lot of time on this, but I’m going to spend less time,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to lose level of service.”
Johnson explained that the 55 voting residents of the additional islands with EMS coverage would not be helping to pay for the additional fire services they would be provided. He said that the people located outside of the fire district but within the hospital district have only one or two calls a year.
“It doesn’t matter,” Johnson said. “It’s too small to waste time on.”
Advisory group member Rick Frazer added that the merger would, hopefully, enhance response times and eliminate confusion for volunteers who work at both agencies that have to divide their time between the two.
Additionally, it could ultimately save the district a lot of money by having both agencies under one operation umbrella. Frazer added that, though there are large differences between Orcas and San Juan, Orcas Island Fire and Rescue operate on an annual budget of approximately $1 million less than the two San Juan entities combined.
“We think what we’ve been able to do is at least provide you with a foundation for your analysis and possible consideration moving forward. … Whatever you decide to do going forward, we hope that it will include an extensive amount of conversations and dialogue with the community,” Dalldorf said. “In the end, that’s what we’re all here to do. We’re here to serve our voters and our residents — our taxpayers — and provide them with the most affordable emergency care services we can provide.”
Fire Commissioner Bob Jarman, who was selected as chairperson of the meetings, commended advisory group members for their efforts and proposed a new group to administer the proposed merger.
“I think it’s time that we look at putting together a task force to put the nuts and bolts — to see if this will really work — together,” Jarman said. “Take the recommendations and implement it.”
The task force will consist of Fire Chief Norvin Collins, EMS Interim Chief Karl Kuetzing, a representative from the hospital district and from the town. The town and hospital district commissioners agreed to have a candidate selected by April 20.
“The organizations independently are doing a pretty good job. … They are clearly performing well,” Frazer said. “I think there is a great opportunity to take.”