Tentative agreement would reduce Whatcom Medic One response

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 25, 2013 

Whatcom Medic One

Joe Bertels, left, and Marie Bussard, paramedics with Whatcom Medic One, wheel a patient into St.Joesph hospital on Friday afternoon, March 9, 2012, in Bellingham.

COLIN DILTZ — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

The government partners that operate the advanced life-saving ambulance service Whatcom Medic One struck a tentative compromise that would mean fewer paramedics responding to calls.

Most of the parties to the Medic One system - the city of Bellingham, the Ferndale fire district, and Whatcom County - support a proposal to reduce the number of paramedic units coming out of Bellingham from four to three in 2014 and 2015. The unit from Fire District 7 in Ferndale would expand its service countywide. It currently only operates within fire districts 7 and 17 (Sandy Point).

The cut is a cost-saving measure to keep Medic One afloat, officials said, until voters are asked to approve a 0.1 percent sales-tax increase to improve the system's revenue, probably in 2015. Medic One is losing money due to fewer billable calls and fewer Medicaid reimbursements.

Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws presented the plan to the County Council on Tuesday, July 23, after his previous proposal was rebuffed by fire officials and the council earlier this month.

His latest proposal keeps the Bellingham "chase car," staffed by a paramedic but not built to transport patients, in 2014 and 2015.

The inclusion of the car, called EMS 6, tipped the scales for Mayor Kelli Linville, who said Tuesday that Louws' plan now acknowledges that EMS 6 is needed if Bellingham is to respond effectively to multiple calls.

"I think that the proposal ... is a good compromise," she said. "It isn't what everybody says they want, but it validates the work that Bellingham is going to do on behalf of the city and the system."

Fire commissioners, fire chiefs, and the unions for the Bellingham and Fire District 7 firefighters all told Louws earlier this month that Bellingham needed to maintain four paramedic units for emergency response to be adequate. Some of those officials retreated from that position on Tuesday.

Bellingham Fire Chief Roger Christensen said the number of calls paramedic units can respond to simultaneously would drop from six to five under Louws' plan.

"Is five enough? Probably," Christensen said.

The fire chief said he expects about nine Bellingham firefighters to retire this year and next, so the paramedic staff could be reduced without layoffs.

The department's union representative wasn't so sure. Rich Kittinger, secretary/treasurer of Bellingham Whatcom County Firefighters IAFF Local 106, said not all retirees will be paramedics. He strongly implied that layoffs were coming, and they would be based on seniority.

"The youngest folks are kind of on the ropes because we are going to be compelled per our contract to meet with the employer, and we are going to reduce some of those folks," Kittinger said.

His position on Louws' proposal was no better than neutral. Calls now handled by paramedics would be taken by less highly trained emergency medical technicians, Kittinger told the County Council.

"I'm not here to be a bogeyman or a labor thug and say, 'People are going to die. You can't do this.' It's just a decision you will have to make on your priority for the response," Kittinger said.

The council voted 6 to 1 to ask Louws to prepare contracts with Bellingham and Fire District 7 according to his latest proposal. Council member Ken Mann cast the dissenting vote, saying he wanted to spend more of Medic One's reserves to keep the system at its current level, until the sales tax measure goes before voters.

Reach RALPH SCHWARTZ at ralph.schwartz@bellinghamherald.com or call 715-2298.

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