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City, Skagit County officials confident in EMS changes

August 3, 2018

After voting to rapidly revise Skagit County’s ambulance system, leaders from the county, cities and emergency departments are confident they will meet their goal of a transition by Jan. 1.

The county commissioners’ 2-1 vote on July 25 dissolved the current ambulance provider for the majority of the county, the Central Valley Ambulance Authority, effective as of 2019 and instead put the fire departments of Mount Vernon, Burlington, Anacortes and Sedro-Woolley in charge.

A committee of ambulance advisers will begin meeting next week to discuss how to give city fire departments the responsibility of managing ambulance response in the county, said Jeff Sargent, emergency medical services director for the county.

This committee, comprised of city, rural and county representatives, is tasked with building a transition plan so fire departments can start providing ambulances by Jan. 1, he said.

“Basically, these are contract negotiation meetings,” he said, adding that the specifics of transferring assets and responsibilities will be worked out there collaboratively.

Once the transition is complete, a resident who calls 911 for an ambulance shouldn’t notice a change, he said.

“We are literally talking about just ... who manages the ambulances,” Sargent said.

Aero Skagit, which serves the county east of Hamilton, will not be affected by this change, he said.

Sargent created a draft map of response areas for the four cities and said the committee will work out the details in the coming months.

Anacortes has already operated under a fire-based system for years, and leaders in Mount Vernon, Burlington and Sedro-Woolley say they are undaunted by the prospect of this new responsibility.

“It’s expanding a service we already offer,” Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau said.

City firefighters are also trained as EMTs, and they are used to responding to medical calls because about 80 percent of their calls are medical in nature, she said.

The only thing that changes from a service perspective is the name on the ambulance, she said.

As for concerns about the quick deadlines for the transition, Boudreau acknowledged it’s a fast turnaround.

“It’s definitely compressed for government, but that’s how the community wants us to act,” she said, but noted that the cities have been discussing this for many years.

In her seven years as mayor, Boudreau said she’s had many specific conversations with city and county leaders about how to transition to a fire-based EMS system and how such a system could run.

Mount Vernon Fire Chief Bryan Brice has extensive experience managing a fire-based EMS system in California. He said he’s confident the transition will go smoothly.

“To some, (the commissioners’ decision) was quick,” Brice said. “Others would say ‘it’s about time.’”

The process of transferring assets from Central Valley is written into its contract, so the distribution of ambulances and equipment shouldn’t present a challenge, Brice said.

He sees the biggest obstacle as hiring paramedics with experience in the area, but he said he believes the department will be able to fill their roster with former Central Valley employees.

“We need folks who are familiar with Skagit County,” he said.

Brice said he believes Central Valley is leaving behind a system that’s served the county well, and he doesn’t see a reason the cities can’t bring that system in-house without much trouble.

Burlington Fire Chief Levon Yengoyan said the cities haven’t started negotiating their contracts with the county, but he feels everyone has an understanding of what needs to be done before January.

If Burlington had to design a new system on its own, he said it couldn’t be done in the time they’ve been given. But Central Valley is already stationed at city fire departments, and its medics already work regularly with Burlington firefighters and EMTs.

He said Central Valley leadership will help the city departments on their way through this transition.

“We’re all working through this together,” Yengoyan said. “There’s real strength in that approach.”

Similarly, Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton said he was not concerned but was actually inspired by the county’s quick response to the cities’ July request to take over.

“If anything, this serves to show there’s serious planning for what the EMS system will look like going forward,” he said.

John Leander, chief of Fire District 5, said the discussions between the cities and the county leaves out an important part of the system: rural firefighters.

He said no one has bothered to reach out to him about the change before the county’s July 25 vote, and in the absence of communication, he is concerned. District 5 covers the northwestern part of the county.

“Obviously, what we’re looking for is a plan,” he said.

He said he isn’t against change that’s well considered and collaborative, but that isn’t what he believes the cities are doing.

“Maybe they’re going to be better, but no one has showed us that,” he said. “We’re all left in the dark.”

Mike Noyes, chief of Fire District 11 in south Fidalgo Island, understands that some rural districts are worried about the speed of this change. But ultimately, these conversations have been happening for decades, and he said it’s time for the system to evolve.

“We’ve been hemming and hawing for a long time and got nowhere,” he said. “Somebody had to say yes, let’s do this. So hey, we’re moving.”

From his position as a rural fire chief, he said he doesn’t anticipate much change in how his firefighters operate.

“The only real change should be the (paramedics’) patch on the shoulder and the emblem on the side of the vehicle,” he said.

Sargent said the cities already have given their guarantee that they will maintain current quality of care, citing the July 17 letter from the cities to the county commissioners, and they purposely noted the importance of the rural districts.

That letter, he said, represented a consensus between the cities and the county on what the future of EMS looks like. That’s something that has never existed before, and he said the county had to capitalize on that while it could.

“That’s something you don’t pass on,” he said.

He said each of the cities already committed to serving rural Skagit County, and they will be contractually obligated to do so once they start ambulance services.

“To even be considered, they have to guarantee coverage outside their municipal areas,” he said.

— Director of Content Colette Weeks contributed to this report.

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