Franklin Fire District 3 opted not to sign a new contract with the city of Pasco and instead will run its own ambulances starting next month.
The fire district, which covers 150 square miles around the city and about four miles inside in an area called the "doughnut hole," has relied on the Pasco Fire Department to provide ambulance service to residents for decades. But an increase in the cost charged by Pasco for the service -- and a failed EMS levy last fall -- left officials scrambling to find a solution.
Commissioners decided Tuesday to let the fire district's volunteer firefighters/EMTs put their skills to use and save some money by running their own service.
"Volunteers will be doing predominately basic life support," said Chief Les Litzenberger. "If we're looking at 85 percent or more of the calls (that) don't require advance life support, our EMTs can do that all day long and there's no loss of real service."
Officials would have to contract with another agency for the advanced life support service.
The fire district's volunteers already respond to every medical call in their area, but they show up in a fire truck along with Pasco's ambulance in case the patient needs to be taken to the hospital.
"Our people are trained and they run on the EMS calls, but usually Pasco's there and they end up doing the majority of the patient care," Litzenberger said, adding that the fire district staff doesn't get to use its skills.
Pasco's service was supposed to end at the start of the year without a new contract, but Pasco officials gave the fire district a one-month extension and told city council members Monday that the district was poised to sign a new contract for the rest of 2013.
That contract would have cost the fire district about $78,000, said fire district Commissioner Tom Hughes.
The city also was working on an agreement to pay the fire district to provide water tender trucks to help with fire suppression to about 500 homes in the doughnut hole that recently were annexed into the city. The idea was to help offset the total cost to the fire district -- reducing it to about $66,000 -- while giving the city time to install more fire hydrants in the area.
Now that fire district officials will run their own ambulances, they will provide water tenders to the annexed area as part of a mutual aid agreement already in existence, Litzenberger said.
Litzenberger said it's not clear how much running the ambulances will cost, except that it will be less than contracting with Pasco.
"It is, to some extent, an experiment to find out what it's going to cost us," he said. "We're in the learning process."
Litzenberger and Hughes didn't waste any time moving forward with their new plan. They were out Wednesday morning scouting ambulances that may be available for purchase from Franklin Fire District 2 and the North Franklin Hospital District.
They already have an agreement with Walla Walla Fire District 5 in Burbank to use a reserve ambulance that officials were considering selling, Litzenberger said. The ambulance will be on loan until Franklin officials can get their own ambulance purchased.
Fire District 3 officials also plan to run another EMS levy, likely on the November ballot, to pay for the service, but are hoping to form a citizen advisory group to provide input on what level of service the community wants and how they want to pay for that.
"We're using money out of the fire fund right now, but we can't do that forever," the fire chief said.
The fire district's mandate is to provide fire protection, Hughes said, noting that it receives taxpayer funds through a fire levy for that purpose. If it comes down to a conflict between providing fire protection or ambulance service, the ambulance service would end.
Hughes also said the current plan is contingent on passage of the new levy vote. If the levy fails again, the ambulance service would end Jan. 1, 2014, and the fire district would no longer provide any emergency medical service.
"As a commissioner, I can say that it was definitely the feedback from our volunteers that made me decide to get into the (ambulance) business," he said. "They are so eager and ready to do this. They convinced me we should get it a try. I believe this is probably the best way to find out if we can do it."
-- Paula Horton: 582-1556; email@example.com