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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion: EMS levy deserves support, but fix model

If you’ve wondered how fire departments got in the business of responding to medical emergencies – and you just might with a six-year EMS levy facing voters this month in Spokane – a bit of history is in order.

It was the lessons learned treating battlefield casualties in Korea and Vietnam that gave rise to a system for getting trained paramedics and medical technicians quickly to the side of civilians suffering serious injuries or illnesses so they could begin receiving treatment even before being transported to a hospital if necessary.

But where to find the responders? How to deploy them?

Fire departments were a logical answer. Not only were personnel already in place, they were housed in stations distributed throughout the community and connected by an established alarm and communications network. Hence, if you have a heart attack in downtown Spokane, the first emergency vehicle you’re likely to see will be a firetruck.

How much you can continue to count on that response, city officials are now saying, depends on the outcome of an April 27 vote, ballots for which have already been sent out. If voters approve the levy – which they’ve done every six years since 1980 – they’ll be authorizing continuation of a 50-cent tax on each $1,000 of property value, which raises some $8 million a year, about a fourth of the Fire Department’s operating budget.

Should they say no, Fire Chief Bobby Williams says, his force could be reduced by a third, some stations could close, response times to fires or medical emergencies would often be slower and residential and business insurance policies could cost more.

Those consequences are as severe as they are because firefighters are highly paid, thanks to favorable state legislation, and civil service rules require that the costliest personnel are the last to be laid off in a cutback. One dilemma facing voters is that even if they object to those underlying factors, voting against the EMS levy won’t fix anything. It would only undermine medical and fire response services.

As far as the April 27 ballot is concerned, the rational decision for Spokane voters is to approve the levy’s renewal.

But we wonder how long the city will cling to a funding model that is designed to cover a service, firefighting, that accounts for no more than a fifth of the department’s calls. Medical situations have become the Fire Department’s primary duty, yet that duty continues to be funded by a special levy rather than a conventional budgetary appropriation.

It’s time to revisit that structure. It’s also time for pressure on state lawmakers to reform the binding arbitration law so it’s designed to achieve pay scales that are fair to firefighters yet reasonable to taxpayers. Voters who support this measure are owed that much.

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