Our Voice: West Richland needs stable ambulance service

Fire officials in West Richland are being prudent in their attempt to get a permanent way to pay for emergency medical services.

West Richland has been growing steadily for years and it makes sense for residents to have an ambulance service that can respond to emergencies as quickly as possible.

The tax that funds this service in Benton Fire District 4, however, will run out at the end of the year. Instead of asking voters to approve a temporary renewal of the tax, fire officials want the current levy locked in indefinitely.

While people may philosophically oppose a permanent tax request, the reality is that West Richland residents need reliable emergency medical services, and providing a consistent way to pay for it makes a lot of sense.

In 2010, voters approved the current emergency medical service levy that allowed the district to operate two ambulances and have one in reserve. This funding source is separate from the fire levy.

The emergency medical service tax was set for six years and was approved with more than 64 percent of the vote. Prior to that, only ambulances from the Richland Fire Department and Benton Fire District 2 in Benton City served West Richland.

Fire District 4 crews could respond to the medical call, but they couldn’t take patients to the hospital because they didn’t have an ambulance.

Having an ambulance service housed close to West Richland residents means response times are faster. Fire officials said it can take 10 to 19 minutes if crews from Benton City are called, and 7 to 12 minutes when Richland fire units respond. Now, since 2010, the average response time in the district has dropped by an average of three minutes.

When someone is suffering from a heart attack or seizure or some other medical emergency, every second counts. The sooner a person can get to the hospital, the better.

Fire District 4 provides fire and emergency medical service to 17,000 people over 52 square miles. It has about 36 volunteers and career firefighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics who respond to an average of 1,200 calls per year. And since 2010, emergency medical calls in the district have increased 57 percent.

Citizens in the fire district pay 50 cents per $1,000 of assessed value for medical services, or $125 annually for a $250,000 home, which brings in about $600,000 annually to the fire district. The levy request, which will be on the primary election ballot in August, keeps the same rate.

The key is this time, there is no expiration date. Bill Whealan, chief of District 4, told the Herald that making the fund permanent would help with long-term planning and save tens of thousands of dollars spent on elections.

He also told the Herald that if voters don’t approve the levy, about half of the department employees could lose their jobs, response times likely would take longer and the ambulance service would go away entirely.

That’s a lot to lose. West Richland should have its own, consistent ambulance service, and fire district officials are smart to ask voters to make that happen.