Voters being asked to back fire levies

Residents in two rural Benton County fire districts are being asked to support an emergency services levy in the Aug. 7 primary election to maintain or expand ambulance services.

Benton Fire District 2, which covers 120 square miles in Benton City and areas around it, is asking voters to approve a 10-year levy that replaces the current 10-year levy expiring at the end of the year.

"This is not a new tax," Chief Ron Duncan said. "This is to continue to operate ambulance service for the Benton City area."

Taxpayers in Benton Fire District 6, which covers 300 square miles in the Paterson area, are being asked to support a new six-year levy that will allow the district to provide advanced life support services on its ambulances.

The fire district has one volunteer who is a trained paramedic and can provide advanced care to patients when she's available to respond to an emergency call, said Chief Rolland Watt. But, the district often has to get help from Kennewick fire or PMH Medical Center ambulance service in Prosser when someone is need of advanced life support care, he said.

The EMS levy for both fire districts would cost 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or $50 a year for the owner of a $100,000 home.

The levies require a simple majority approval.

Benton Fire District 2 (Benton City)

Benton Fire District 2 would collect about $174,000 each year from the levy, which is used to pay for the fuel, ambulances, supplies, housing, equipment, personnel, insurance, law compliance and training for its two ambulances.

The fire district has provided emergency services to its residents for more than 64 years, Duncan said. Residents first approved an EMS levy to support the ambulance service in the early 1980s.

The fire district is one of only three in the county that runs ambulances. Benton Fire District 4 in West Richland began its ambulance service last year and provides all level of services, like District 2.

Residents in the Benton City area who need to be taken to the hospital by ambulance don't have to pay beyond what their insurance is billed. Insurance billing and the levy dollars cover the cost of the service, Duncan said.

"Without (the levy), we would have to cut it back or close it," he said. "And (residents) would have to rely on Tri-City ambulances."

The fire district has three full-time career firefighters and 45 volunteer firefighters and EMTs on staff. They respond to more than 700 emergencies each year, with the majority of calls being EMS-related.

In the first five months of this year, 200 of the district's 281 calls were for EMS services.

The EMS levy measure for District 2 inadvertently was left off the ballot when Benton County first issued ballots for the primary, but the ballots have been reprinted.

All voters in the Benton City area covered by the district already should have received new ballots in the mail. Those voters are being told to throw out the first ballot and vote only with the new ballot.

Benton Fire District 6 (Paterson)

Benton Fire District 6 began its ambulance service 30 years ago, but has relied on surrounding agencies to respond when critical care is needed.

"In the last year and a half we have taken our service from basic life support to advanced life support. We purchased the equipment, the medications, the ALS equipment we needed," Chief Watt said.

When the one trained paramedic volunteer is not able to respond, the fire district responds with the basic life support care it can offer, but then calls for assistance from a neighboring city.

"The problem with that is for them to get out here. It's 30 to 40 minutes," Watt said, noting that a lot of time the ambulances will meet somewhere on the highway to hand off the patient.

If the EMS levy passes, Watt said the fire district would hire temporary employees who are paramedics to work 12-hour shifts. If enough paramedics sign up, the district will be able to provide advanced life support service 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he said.

The levy would collect $255,000 a year for six years. It'll cost about $130,000 a year for the temporary employees. The other levy funds would be used for equipment replacement and some upgrades to the station to provide dorms and an updated kitchen for the 24-hour staff.

All the households in the fire district would get MedStar membership with the levy, which means if someone is critically injured and needs to be flown to the hospital, the cost of the helicopter transfer would be covered.

The chief also said that if the levy passes, residents would not get billed for the ambulance ride, beyond what is sent to the insurance company. Currently, residents who are transported by a neighboring agency get billed.

Watt said his fire district is unique because it doesn't get a lot of medical calls like other agencies, but when it does, it's for drastic major medical issues, like high-speed crashes or heavy machinery accidents.

"It's, 'I'm dying, save my life,' " he said.

The money from the EMS levy also has very strict rules for what it can be spent on, he said.

"Taxpayers can know this money goes directly to providing services to them," Watt said.