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Fire district annexation, the first step in reforming our fire and rescue services | Guest column

By Loren Johnson, M.D.

The beauty of our island environment belies its hazardous nature. Our geology, weather and seasonal dynamics put us at risk for earthquakes, tsunamis, storms, droughts, pandemics, fires and societal disruptions. We have an elderly population and our separation from the mainland requires that we have highly capable and well-managed fire and rescue services, with special planning and resources to ensure self-sufficiency in case of large-scale disaster and societal breakdown..

Thanks to our caregivers and all of our efforts, we’ve weathered the early COVID-19 storm and stayed relatively safe in this pandemic. But, with these many hazards waiting in the wings, this is not the time for complacency..

Our fragmented health care system poses additional challenges; including insurance disparities, cumbersome gate keeping and payment denials, such as the air-ambulance insurance debacle we experienced in 2018.

Our two main rescue agencies are San Juan Island Fire and Rescue District #3 (SJIFire) and San Juan Island EMS (SJIEMS). SJIFire is staffed with co-trained firefighter-EMTs who provide Basic Life Support services for San Juan and surrounding islands. SJIEMS is staffed with Paramedics and EMTs who work together to provide both Advanced and Basic Life Support services for the same area. It operates under the authority of the San Juan County Public Hospital District No. 1. Hence, the Fire District and the Hospital District have separate sets of EMTs responding to many of the same emergency calls.

In 2018 a Citizens Advisory Committee recommended the merger of SJIEMS into the fire district. The two districts started the merger process in 2019, but it stalled with changes in elected leadership and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Agency staffers have since worked together to coordinate their EMS responses. And their respective commissioners and chiefs, including Joshua Corsa, M.D., County EMS Medical Policy Director, have all come out in favor of merging SJIEMS into SJIFire.

Another impediment to the merger has been the historic separation of the Town of Friday Harbor from the Fire District. The town once had its own fire department, but closed it several years ago, and has since contracted for fire protection with SJIFire for $400,000 annually. Town Councillors have long recognized the need for annexation and recently voted unanimously to place the measure on the April 27 ballot. If it passes, the annexation will take effect at year-end. This will provide town residents with chartered fire protection, and the right to vote on Fire District issues, including its commissioners and levies.

Recently, both the Fire Commissioners and the PHD Commissioners voted unanimously in support of town annexation. If it passes, both agencies can focus on their respective missions, including consummation of the EMS merger, if they so choose.

In summary, annexation will streamline fire protection for all of us, and will also pave the way for the unification of Emergency Medical Services, in a community that clearly needs this system to function at its best.