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Editorial: Fire task force’s ideas deserve consideration, application

It may not be everyone’s idea of a summer read, but the 2013 Fire Task Team Final Report delivered to Mayor David Condon on Tuesday rethinks tired plots encompassing fire and first-response medical assistance in ways soon to reward Spokane residents.

An agreement between the city and firefighters that will position one-person medical response units at three stations during the day may be the first of many changes that maintain or improve service, yet save taxpayer dollars.

For years, Spokane residents have shaken their heads when firetrucks responded to medical calls. It made sense to keep firefighters with their trucks in case of fire, but no sense to drive a ladder truck to the scene of a twisted ankle.

Since 2003, the share of calls for medical assistance has exceeded 80 percent of all fire department calls. As the population ages, it may eclipse 90 percent, and the waste of manpower and wear on equipment will become more intolerable. But the city cannot afford enough firefighters with contracts that require 24-hour shifts when they are needed for only the 10 daytime hours of peak demand.

The average pay for Spokane firefighters is higher than that for Portland’s – $121,910 versus $112,494 – and with every increase in pay, the number on duty has declined.

The agreement announced Monday shows encouraging flexibility from Fire Fighters Local 29. Although only a three- to six-month test, we are confident that a firefighter driving a sport-utility vehicle equipped with medical supplies can capably handle non-life-threatening emergencies.

The $225,000 cost of the three additional firefighters required to model the change can be accommodated within the current city budget. Restoring fire service at Fire Station No. 9 on the South Hill, another task force recommendation, and a Condon goal, will be more of a stretch.

An obvious step: Transponders on firetrucks that allow drivers to control stoplights and speed their way through intersections.

But what impresses us about the report more than any specific objective is the thoughtful way it examines every aspect of fire and medical response; from house to firehouse, and from accident scene to the hospital. Do mutual and supplemental aid partnerships with adjacent fire districts make sense as a less expensive way of improving service to outer areas of the city like Eagle Ridge, for example? Why must every medical emergency end up with transport to a hospital emergency room, even for the most minor of complaints?

“The current system produces outcomes at the highest possible costs to our institutions and our citizens,” the task force concluded early in its deliberations.

Legal requirements are part of the problem, but so are patients who use ambulance service instead of having a relative or friend drive them to a clinic. Medicare has already begun denying reimbursement for transport when there is a “lack of medical necessity”– as well it should – and that will occur more often as health care reform is implemented.

The task force chaired by City Councilman Steve Salvatori did an excellent job. The SUV medical response test suggests its report will not die on a shelf. That would be a shame.

Work of this quality deserves reading – and heeding – any season, not just summer.

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