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Fueling the Fire Department 

Back in May, voters approved a property tax levy to raise much-needed funds for the Bend Fire Department. With resources stretched thin, response times for emergency medical services (which the fire department provides) throughout Bend have become dangerously long. The five year levy—which voters overwhelming approved—is intended to raise money to improve response times for 911 fire and medical emergency calls.

But how exactly to spend those funds was left to the fire department.

In July, the fire department started collecting those funds and, over the summer and this past autumn, the fire department's head honchos have been trying to figure out how to most wisely spend that money. They were somewhat in a corner, though. To bring on additional staffing was expensive, as each individual firefighter requires hundreds of hours of training—and, there are requirements and restrictions by the local union.

Yet, last week, with a unique and potentially groundbreaking plan, the fire department announced it will create a major boon in staffing at the fire department—ultimately, hiring 26 non-union EMTs to assist the fire department.

What was particularly tricky with the plan is that it required approval from the union—a difficult negotiation because the fire department was asking to hire non-union staff with considerably less training than the union requires; all of this potentially went against the job security and level of required training that Local 227 of the International Association of Firefighters works to protect.

But, on the other hand, the fire department could hire these additional emergency response crews for nearly half the cost.

On Wednesday, the fire department submitted the plan for review to City Council.

Essentially, the plan will involve hiring non-union EMTs who will manage the less intense and complicated calls—which actually constitute the vast majority of calls for the fire department.

Fire Captain Larry Langston stopped by the Source's offices to explain that four out of five emergency calls are not actually emergencies—and those calls thin out resources by drawing out highly trained firefighters (who also have paramedic training) to calls that don't really require that expertise. But with the new system and additional staffing, the fire department will be able to double its on-call medical emergency resources from two to four staffed units—and to do so at considerably less cost than hiring fully training paramedic firefighters.

"If we had just done it the same, we would have spent all the levy [money] to staff the more advance life units," explained Langston, adding that "a greater number of resources available for calls" is the bottom line.

Ultimately, this is the type of clever solution that, once discovered, seems so obvious: Bend appears to be the first city in Oregon, if not the country, that has negotiated with the union to try a two-tier systems with the non-union EMTs adding capacity, but not threatening the overall integrity of the fire department. The fire department won't lose any union jobs, but simply adds capacity and efficiency. There are also big benefits to the community-at-large, with faster response times. Moreover, with a demand for more EMTs, it also presents a potential boon to Central Oregon Community College, which has an EMT certification program. In spite of some grumblings from the national union representatives, the local union gave its nearly unanimous support for the plan.

The plan is on track to be implemented in February.

Hats off to the fire department for a clever solution, and for creating more bang for our public dollars.


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