Fire, EMS districts meet to consider future
Jefferson County Fire District and Jefferson County Emergency Medical Services representatives, along with local city and county officials all sat down together last week to discuss how best to serve the public.
George Dunkel, of Scappoose, the consulting services administrator for the Special Districts Association of Oregon, told the group that he travels the state and sees several different models for providing fire and emergency medical services.
"Madras or Jefferson County isn't unique," he said. "There are services that look a lot like you, but others that look different."
According to Dunkel, there are only four other locations in the state with a similar set-up — separate fire and ambulance services: Florence, Milton-Freewater, Malin, and Glendale.
What sets Jefferson County apart is that JCEMS is entirely fee-based. "The others all have some kind of dedicated tax funding," he said.
The district went out for a 41 cents per $1,000 permanent tax rate in May, but the ballot measure was defeated by a vote of 1,766 no to 871 yes.
Other communities have fire-based emergency medical services — fire departments that also provide emergency medical services.
"There are many fire-based services in Oregon," said Dunkel. "In Central Oregon, there is Redmond, Bend, Crooked River, Crook County and Sisters.
At Crooked River Ranch, he noted, "A key service that the fire district provides is ambulance transport; it's underwritten by people voting yes for fire."
Other configurations around the state include hospital-based EMS systems, such as the one in Tillamook; private ambulance services, which are more common in metropolitan areas; and private-public partnerships, such as the one in Waldport.
Current state of operations
JCEMS Chief Liz Heckathorn and JCFD Chief Brian Huff each gave an overview of their operations for the audience of about 60 people, gathered at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds on Sept. 19.
JCEMS, which was formed as a special health care district in 1986, is headquartered at 360 SW Culver Highway, and operates with 12 full-time staff members, eight part-time employees, 10 volunteers, and a medical director.
Besides owning its station, the district owns three ambulances outright, and has two on payment plans; one of the five is located at the Culver City Hall. "Our intent is to once again staff that in the future with volunteers," said Heckathorn.
The district provides advanced life support in response to 911 calls, and anticipates receiving 2,585 calls this year, with 432 of those calls for transfers out of the area.
Additionally, JCEMS provides public education on topics such as car seat safety and hands-only CPR; standby coverage for the race tracks, boat races, fair and rodeo; lift assistance (189 in January and February); welfare checks; law enforcement standby; and mutual aid requests from other ambulance and fire districts.
Over the past four years, the district has spent $80,000 to make the station safer and more functional; set up an apparatus replacement program; purchased equipment; and increased wages for staff from $12.25 per hour to $15 per hour.
"That's where we're at now," said Heckathorn. "We'd like to do better."
The district, which is operating with a budget of $1,408,695 for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, was also recognized earlier this year as one of only two ambulance agencies in the state — out of 136 — that uses only electronic charting.
As for response times, Heckathorn said that the requirement is six minutes, "and we meet that over 90 percent of the time."
Jefferson County Fire District
The fire district, established in 1952 as the North Unit Rural Fire Protection District, combined with the Madras Fire Department in 1985, as the Jefferson County Rural Fire Protection District No. 1. Four years later, the fire department moved into the new fire hall on Southeast Fifth and J streets.
The district, which had seven full-time positions until recently, is down to six, due to its Public Employees Retirement System obligations.
"It's a mess; it's affecting us," said Huff, noting that they had an employee retire and couldn't afford to replace him. "That's a 15 percent decrease in paid staff."
Up to six students and about 35 volunteers help the district with the 750 or so calls it responds to every year, including medical calls, motor vehicle crashes and ambulance assists, in addition to fire calls.
"A current challenge is keeping up with the growing training requirements," said Huff, pointing out that firefighters must complete 60 hours of training per year.
Another challenge for the district is aging equipment, from fire engines to self-contained breathing apparatus. "In 2019, the self-contained breathing apparatus is all going to need to be replaced," said Huff, who expects that the district will need to come up with at least $60,000.
The district actively seeks grants to help pay for positions, as well as equipment. Recently, the district contributed $50,000 to obtain 18 thermal imaging cameras, which would cost $104,000, and also received a wildland equipment grant.
Huff is particularly proud of the greatly improved Public Protection Classification report the district received this year from the ISO — formerly Insurance Services Office. On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 as superior fire protection for property and 10 as not meeting minimum standards, the district improved its score from 5 down to 3. The district is now one of only 3,461 districts in the country with a 3 rating. A total of only 1,663 districts have better ratings (1 or 2), while another 39,548 have ratings from 4-10.
As a result of the improved rating, property owners can contact their insurance company for a possible rate reduction. "For a $200,000 assessed property value in this county, that's about $80 per year in savings," said Huff.
Next steps for districts
Dunkel will now work with the fire and EMS districts to put together a draft scope of work for the feasibility study. "There are other communities that have done this," he said. "We'll look at that; we'll say how do we make this look like Jefferson County?"
"One of the things a feasibility study is going to look at is the EMS district is currently not supported by any tax dollars; it is only supported by fees that are paid if you are transported," he said. "So, the Jefferson County community pays nothing for them to be on standby and come to your aid. For the fire district, the community pays a permanent rate property tax for the fire district to be prepared to come to them when there's a need."
If the two districts were to combine, he expects that more funding would be required, since district residents are not paying a base rate for ambulance. "They can't do it with no additional funding," he said. "I think the feasibility study will prove it."
Asked about funding for a feasibility study, which could cost from $15,000-$30,000, County Commissioner Mike Ahern said that the county has a fund that could be a resource. "I think we could be a substantial contributor."
The cities of Madras, Culver and Metolius also voiced support for a feasibility study.
"It's certainly not about turf in this day and age; it's about providing a service," said Heckathorn. "We're open to all kinds of options. Having a feasibility study makes sense."