Eastside Fire & Rescue cuts could mean slower responses

November 9, 2010

By Staff

Agency shields Issaquah Highlands station from reductions

Eastside Fire & Rescue has announced plans to reduce staffing at stations in Issaquah, Sammamish and other communities — and the cuts could mean slower response times for emergency crews.

In order to confront a budget shortfall, EFR plans to keep fewer responders on duty at fire stations. The result: Crews could take a longer time to reach emergencies, because help could come from more distant stations.

The agency has a policy to maintain three responders on duty at all times at nine stations throughout the EFR coverage area. Under the plan announced Nov. 5, the agency plans to drop a station per day from three responders on duty to two.

In extreme situations, EFR plans to reduce staffing by two responders and close a station for a day. The agency said the station is to be selected after considering workload, overall operation and location.

In many cases, the decision to reduce crew size or close a station could be determined only a few hours before the start of a day, depending on the number of employees not able to report for duty due to illness or other situations. The agency plans to rotate the reduced staffing level in order to prevent a single community from bearing the brunt of the cutbacks.

EFR leaders intend to scrutinize how the staffing cuts affect service. Deputy Chief Jeff Griffin said two-person stations could still respond to most medical emergencies and motor vehicle accidents — or 80 percent to 90 percent of calls.

EFR has shielded four stations from staff reductions — Station 73 in the Issaquah Highlands, Station 83 in Sammamish, Station 85 in Carnation and Station 87 in downtown North Bend — due to the number of calls the stations receive, remote location or strategic position.

The plan is in effect until the end of the year, but could extend into subsequent years if the economic downturn continues.

Griffin said the agency plans to take care not to under-staff stations during winter storms or other natural disasters. The agency could be reimbursed for overtime costs if the federal government declares a disaster, such as a major flood.

“In that event, we’d go back to the board and ask for some emergency money,” Griffin said. “Whatever it takes to adequately serve the community.”

The decision to reduce staff or close a station should help the agency avoid $1,052 to $2,856 per day in overtime expenses.

Griffin said the understaffing plan took effect as soon as the agency overspent its $419,000 overtime budget for the year. The agency board has had the policy in place for four years, but has not had to use the measure until now.

The board intends to increase EFR overtime funds to $488,000 next year. Officials also plan to eliminate two positions — and Griffin said the overtime issue is likely to return in 2011.

“If the economy doesn’t start recovering, this could become the new norm,” Griffin said.

“The firefighters’ union, the board of directors and staff have worked hard to avoid this day, yet in the end this is all about doing the best you can with what you have,” EFR Chief Lee Soptich said in a statement.

The regional agency is the emergency responder for Issaquah, Klahanie, Preston and Sammamish, plus unincorporated King County and a large swath from Carnation to Snoqualmie Pass. EFR serves about 116,000 people across the 190-square-mile service area.

EFR has undertaken a series of cost-control measures — including renegotiating union contracts, changing work rules, freezing or reducing wages, altering health care plans, tapping reserve funds and adjusting equipment-replacement plans — to prevent service cuts.

“Without the cooperation of the represented employees, volunteers, elected officials and staff, we would have been into layoffs and program elimination long before now,” Soptich said. “We are of the attitude that we need to take many small though significant steps now instead of one huge step later.”

Caleb Heeringa: 392-6434, ext. 247, or cheeringa@isspress.com. Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or wkagarise@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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