Increasing call volume leads to shuffle in North End ambulance staffing

WhidbeyHealth will be operating an additional ambulance out of the five available in the North End.

Although there will still be the same number of ambulances available to North End residents, a proposed change to the contract between North Whidbey Fire and Rescue and WhidbeyHealth will see fire district staff operating one less emergency vehicle.

There are five ambulances available for North End residents. Two of them are currently staffed by the fire district, although WhidbeyHealth covered 93 percent of the expenses for running one of them, North Whidbey Fire and Rescue Chief Clark said.

The other three were operated by WhidbeyHealth.

When WhidbeyHealth decided it wanted to add more paramedics to its ambulances, North Whidbey had to reduce its manpower since there are no paramedics on staff with the fire district.

Nic Wildeman, a community relations specialist for WhidbeyHealth, said the move has been under consideration as call volumes have increased.

“This is just literally an expansion of capacity to make sure we’re in a position to take care of everybody who needs us,” Wildeman said. “The fire departments decide what they’re able to provide, and in this case it made a lot of sense for us to add a vehicle.”

Clark said the fire district does not have the money to keep the part-time workers who used to staff the second ambulance, so they will rotate with the crew on the first ambulance. They will all likely work fewer hours, he added.

“Those positions were created specifically for staffing that ambulance so when the ambulance contract changed, the district had to adjust manpower,” Clark said.

Some people suggested the recently passed levy lid lift — which increased the tax rate by 24 percent — could be used to support the second ambulance, but Clark said the funding was not designed that way.

“We were very diligent in the reason for the lid lift is for equipment,” said Clark. “That lid lift was not meant for staffing.”

Clark said the district is currently considering whether to buy two new engines at the same time or to stagger the purchases, with its levy money. It takes about eight months for the manufacturer to deliver the engine after it has been ordered, according to the fire chief.

The agency will be replacing the aging self-contained breathing apparatuses in early 2021 and has begun replacing some of its radios, Clark added.

The fire chief acknowledged the district has a staffing issue and will work to address those needs. There are only four full-time operational staff who do firefighting work and two more people work in administration.

Sixty volunteer firefighters make up the majority of the fire service, and there are 21 part- time firefighters on staff.

Working part-time is not uncommon for firefighters, Clark explained.

“Typically, when they get out of fire school as an EMT/firefighter, if they don’t get a full-time job right away, they may work part- time in a few places,” or have a job outside of the fire service, he said.

Training for full-time, part-time and volunteer firefighters is the same, he added.

An upcoming strategic plan will look at staffing and other needs for the vision of the fire district, Clark said, and opportunity for public input will likely come in late summer next year.

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