Life-saving emergency response likely will make do with one fewer ambulance for up to three years, as the Whatcom County Council voted 6-1 on Tuesday, Dec. 10, to restructure Whatcom Medic One and keep it intact as a unified, countywide ambulance service.
The three-agency agreement still requires the approval of the Bellingham City Council, which is scheduled to consider it on Monday, Dec. 16.
Bellingham paramedics would continue to provide advanced life support with the Ferndale fire district, which has already approved the agreement.
To remain unified, the beleaguered EMS service had to overcome animosity between the Bellingham and Ferndale firefighter unions, and a budget that was quickly heading into the red. The contract for 2014-16 balances the concerns of unions that would lose paramedics and a budget that would have become insolvent by 2016.
By eliminating one ambulance, the system saves more than $1 million over the next three years and stays in the black through 2016. The EMS system still will lose money, however, and the county likely will ask voters to approve a tax increase to keep Medic One funded.
"We still have funding challenges before us, and we are as a community going to have to deal with that," county Executive Jack Louws said after the council approved the restructuring.
"Is it perfect? No. Is it a step in the right direction? ... Yes," Louws said.
Fire officials have said the revamped system, with three Bellingham ambulances, one Ferndale ambulance and a Bellingham "chase car" with a paramedic, should be adequate to respond to serious emergencies. The contract acknowledges that response times in some parts of the county will be longer, and basic life support ambulances, staffed by emergency medical technicians, will respond first in some cases. EMTs receive less training than paramedics.
With Tuesday's vote, the County Council created a Medic One that is run by the county with two new boards in advisory roles. The boards will include officials from fire districts, Bellingham, the county and the small cities, and citizen representation.
Council member Ken Mann, who voted against the agreement, said that while it keeps the system unified it could be a step toward break-up of the advanced ambulance service.
"It's going from a city of Bellingham administered program, with city of Bellingham medics and employees, to a county administered program that will contract for services with various providers," Mann said. The reorganization could create some inefficiencies, he said.
"It's definitely not as unified and integrated as it used to be."