Whatcom County, Bellingham shuffle emergency medical service responsibilities

In a continuing shift of how emergency medical services are managed in Whatcom County, the city and county are formally divvying up the resources of Whatcom Medic One.

Last July, the city and county restructured the way that the most serious ambulance calls, known as advanced life support services, are handled.

The change came after Whatcom County Council members decided in 2010 that they were dissatisfied with a longstanding agreement between the city and county that set up a countywide system relying on city paramedics and ambulances.

At the end of 2013, the Bellingham and county councils agreed to a new contract system in which Bellingham operates three ambulances and a supervisor “chase car” to cover emergencies inside and outside city limits, while Fire District 7 in Ferndale is expected to provide a fourth medic unit for countywide use.

Until that point, the city and county shared financial responsibility evenly, but the city managed all of the system’s assets and liabilities. In the last several months, the city and county have worked out how to split everything so the county and city will each manage their own assets and liabilities.

During its regular 7 p.m. meeting Monday, May 4, Bellingham City Council voted to surplus the ambulance currently used by District 7 and the manufactured home on Grandview Road where it is housed, so it can be transferred to the county. The County Council was expected to go through a similar process to give the city property on East Smith Road used for one of the other medic units.

The swap essentially formalizes who is already using various equipment. The transfer shouldn’t make a difference in who responding where for emergencies, fire officials said.

“The real transition happened last July, that’s when District 7’s EMS unit was on the streets,” said Tyler Schroeder, special projects manager for the county. “The last nine months or so we’ve been working more specifically on coordination between Bellingham Fire and District 7.”

Total projected cost for the EMS system this year is $7.21 million, with an ending balance of $949,526. For 2016, the system is expected to cost $7.45 million, with a year-end balance of $393,264.

Even with the elimination of one ambulance in 2014, which saved more than $1 million over three years, the EMS fund balance will continue to dwindle until a new funding source is found.

“Simply put, by the end of 2016 the system will be running on fumes,” according to minutes from a November 2014 meeting of the system’s Executive Oversight Board. The board includes members from the county, cities, and the medical and fire communities.

While County Executive Jack Louws continues to work on a funding plan for a new jail that could put a new 0.2 percent sales tax measure before voters this fall, there are no immediate plans to put a property tax levy for emergency services before voters, Schroeder said.

“That’s not included with the current jail sales tax discussion,” he said. “It would be a separate property tax levy or sales tax initiative that would move forward in 2016.”