Lynden ambulance fee protects community; keeps service level

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDApril 3, 2014 

Why did Lynden implement an ambulance utility fee? I offer this brief history and explanation because it may also be instructive for other communities in Whatcom County facing the same dynamics and dilemmas.

In 2005 a policy change in Whatcom County impacted the way emergency medical services was to be handled. The task of first responding and basic life support was given to all the local fire departments; advanced life support was administered through the county's Medic One program.

As in most cities, the vast majority of emergencies handled by the fire department are medically related; a full 85 percent of the calls to our fire department are emergency medical service related. Lynden is a retirement town, and its aging population places an extra load on emergency medical services.

Lynden's volunteer force could not keep up with the growing demand for service. Lynden began to shift from an all-volunteer fire department to a combination of full-time fire fighters and volunteers, which generated new expenses for our city. As things ramped up, Lynden scrambled to find ways to meet growing expenses and was, at least, fortunate enough to secure a federal "SAFER" grant to fund five full-time fire fighters.

In 2012, Lynden was served by more than 30 volunteer fire fighters; today, the number has dwindled to 13! A variety of factors has reduced the number of individuals who feel called to volunteer for local fire departments, including: busier lifestyles; added emergency medical service training requirements making the demands of the position much higher; the reality that businesses are less likely to allow employees to leave at any given time to answer an emergency call; the demand on volunteers' time has increased because the call volume has grown dramatically as citizens are very quick to dial 9-1-1.

So, a summary of the problem Lynden faces; the emergency call volume is growing dramatically. Volunteerism has dropped dramatically. Our fire department budget has grown nearly 50 percent during the past five years. Eight full-time fire fighters are currently on staff and the federal grant currently funding three full-time positions comes to an end in 2015.

Our City Council clearly recognizes the fire department/emergency medical services as critical to public safety. So the Council and administration has been struggling with this funding question for several years.

We have looked at many options, including joining North Whatcom Fire and Rescue, a district that surrounds Lynden. Joining the district would be expensive for the citizens of Lynden and the response times that we have now would not be guaranteed in the future.

Another option would be to cut back on fire department resources but that would increase the response time on an emergency medical services call. Talk to any citizen and no one is supportive of reducing response time or compromising the current level of emergency services to which we have become accustomed in Lynden.

The Council considered trimming other city services to free up revenue but concluded that everything was necessary and being run as efficiently as possible.

Another solution to fund emergency medical service is Washington State's option for an ambulance utility fee. A consultant group reviewed Lynden's demographics, fire department, and call volume and determined that we could charge household a fee of up to $11.99. However, the Council was not comfortable burdening our citizens with a fee of this amount.

After an extended, thorough and thoughtful debate, the City Council did finally decide to enact a substantially smaller utility fee of $6 a month, an amount thought to be sufficient to make fire services sustainable.

We have a reputation in Lynden of being very careful with the public funds. As mayor, I feel this ambulance utility fee decision reflects that community sentiment and also protects our citizens at a level they have come to expect.

Lynden's story is not unique; much of Whatcom County depends on volunteer fire departments. Other communities are facing the same difficulty. Give thought to volunteering or encouraging others to step up for this great public service. And be sure to thank those who do!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Scott Korthuis was elected Lynden mayor in 2009 and is serving his second term in office. He can be reached at CityHall@lyndenwa.org.

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