Fire district questions deal from WGH

Fire districts and Whidbey General Hospital officials are continuing to struggle over the best way to provide emergency services to the public.

While Whidbey General Hospital is asking local fire districts to play a larger role in providing basic life support services, commissioners with Island County Fire District 3 are questioning the viability of the hospital’s plan.

For South Whidbey, the proposal doesn’t pencil out, district officials say. If the $3.8 million hospital levy is approved, South Whidbey would receive just $142,000 a year to staff an ambulance crew full time.

Fire district critics say it can’t be done for that amount of money, however. What’s worse, according to fire district officials, if they don’t go along with the levy proposal, they will lose what little money they have been receiving from the hospital district for emergency services.

“The dollars and cents don’t make sense,” said Mike Helland, a Fire District 3 commissioner.

“They would give us $142,000; and we would spend at least $260,000,” he said.

In addition, Helland said the district does not have enough volunteers to staff an ambulance full time, and the hospital levy money will not come close to the salaries of full-time medical emergency personnel.

The hospital is asking the four Island County fire districts to provide personnel for the hospital’s ambulances, and an ambulance would be stationed at each fire station. Four fire districts would be involved; North Whidbey, Oak Harbor, Central Whidbey and Fire District 3 on South Whidbey.

While the hospital would pick up the tab for maintenance and upkeep of the vehicles, the fire districts would be responsible to staff the ambulances 24 hours a day, seven days week.

The hospital’s argument is that the plan will put five more ambulances on the street.

“What looks good on one hand, is not necessarily so,” said Paul Busch, Fire District 3 assistant fire chief.

Busch said having an ambulance at the fire district will not necessarily increase service for the public because of long turn-around times.

“As an example, it takes at least two hours to transport a patient from the South End to the hospital. During that time, the ambulance is out of service here for more calls,” Busch said.

The hospital is also proposing that fire district personnel provide assistance in transporting patients off island.

A hospital paramedic and an emergency medical technician, or EMT, from the fire district would team up to complete the transfers. That proposal is also drawing concern.

“We would end up losing volunteers on the firefighter side to supplement Whidbey General’s plan,” Busch said.

“It would create huge holes in our volunteer system and our volunteers would burn out,” Helland said.

With the exception of the seven part-time, on-call firefighters who staff the district during the day, most South Whidbey fire district personnel are volunteers.

District 3 officials are also worried about the distribution of money once the levy is passed.

“South Whidbey property owners will be taxed 50 cents per $1,000 by the hospital. How much of that money will be used for emergency services on South Whidbey?” Helland asked. “We are paying for services in Oak Harbor.”

Fire district officials are now discussing developing their own system, by adding emergency services to the fire district levy.

Helland favors letting the voters decide which entity they want to provide emergency services.

“Let’s stop and take a real look at what the public wants. They should decide who they want to provide emergency services,” he said.

Currently, the district receives $75,000 per year from the hospital to help fund basic life support services.

Fire District 3 Chief Dan Stout said he and other fire chiefs and fire commissioners are continuing to meet with hospital officials.

“There are definitely some questions we brought up that need to be answered,” Stout said.

Paul Zavaruha, medical program director for the hospital, is hopeful the fire districts and the hospital can work out the kinks in the proposed partnership.

“Nationally, there is not enough money in healthcare,” he told the commissioners recently.

“We can’t continue the way we are,” Zavaruha said.

Part of the fire district’s mission is to provide emergency medical services, he added.

Roger Meyers, emergency services director for the hospital, said the hospital and the districts are still talking.

“We are trying to work with the fire districts to address their concerns and needs,” he said.

“We knew it would be a lot of hard work, but I am encouraged that discussions are still ongoing,” Meyers said.

The proposed six-year hospital levy would increase property taxes from 37 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation to 50 cents per $1,000. The annual property tax bill on a $300,000 home would rise from $111 to $150, a yearly increase of $32.

The proposed levy would dedicate 7 cents of the 15-cent increase to enhance basic life support needs and to continuing funding off-island transports, which keep advanced life support ambulances available for more serious injuries. Five cents of the increase would go to construction of central and South Whidbey paramedic quarters; one cent is needed to offset decreasing reimbursements and increasing costs.

The measure will be on the November ballot.

Gayle Saran can be reached at 221-5300 or

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