Opinion

Mercer Island firefighters oppose ‘fee for transport’ | Island Forum

The Mercer Island Firefighters Association, the 27 men and women who provide fire and EMS protection for the citizens of Mercer Island every day, strongly and unanimously oppose the “Fee for Transport” initiative that passed by a 4-to-3 vote at the most recent City Council meeting.

The City Council, in spite of our clear and vocal opposition, decided to adopt the Fee for Transport measure. This will have a significant impact on our ability to provide protection for the citizens of Mercer Island. In addition to the Firefighters Association, Dr. Eisenberg, the Director of Emergency Medical Services, in an open letter to all mayors and fire chiefs in King County, strongly opposed implementing “Fee for Transport.” His letter is co-signed by most of the directors of emergency medical services in King County.

A Fee for Transport allows the City of Mercer Island to charge a fee to transport patients off the Island to area hospitals using fire department units. This program would result in us transporting patients off the Island up to 700 times a year, as opposed to the 100 times or so we do now.

The current system works very well. Private ambulances now transport most of our patients, allowing us to return to service more quickly and ready for the next call. Because there is no corresponding increase in staffing, transporting additional patients will create longer out-of-service times. These longer out-of-service times make it possible that you, or someone you know, will call 911 and have a delay in the arrival of emergency services from the fire department.

In the recent past, the fire department has tried transporting more patients. Increasing the frequency of transport was determined to be detrimental to response times, and it stripped the Island of fire and EMS resources.

Our dependency on off-island units will naturally increase under the new program placing the Island’s South end in particular at risk due to longer response times. Bellevue, the fire department we most closely work with and depend on, recently looked at the same Fee for Transport program. The concept was rejected by their budget committee before it got to a vote by their city council.

The discussion at the recent City Council meeting focused on managing the increased out-of-service time and how the fire department could ‘make do’ with the existing resources. Some argue that these longer out-of-service times and the associated increased risks are manageable, but the real question is: Should the citizens of Mercer Island be forced to tolerate this increased risk? Do you want your emergency services to “make do” in pursuit of a relatively small amount of money?

One can only guess what the real “cost” of this program may end up being. The firefighters would not be so vocal if this issue were not of significant importance. Mercer Island currently has one of the best cardiac arrest save rates in the country; we would like to keep it that way.

Your firefighters work very hard to deliver the best possible service and we will continue to do so, with whatever tools and resources we are given. However, in our professional opinion, this initiative would be a step back, not a step forward, in delivering valuable and, in many cases, life-saving services.

Ray Austin, a veteran Mercer Island firefighter, is the president of the International Association of Firefighters, Local #1762.

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