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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane firefighters will continue to answer medical calls in SUVs

SUVs will continue to respond to some medical emergencies in Spokane, according to an agreement announced Monday between the city and the firefighters union.

The agreement follows a vote by the City Council last month that required the Alternative Response Units to be staffed by two people instead of one. Before the vote and the program’s temporary suspension in May, the vehicles were staffed by just one person.

While most city officials said the program has been successful, the City Council pointed to a few situations when a one-person crew was not adequate to handle the call, which led to the council’s vote to bump up staffing. In one case, an elderly woman died, and in another a lone medic was confronted by a violent man.

The ARU program was formed in 2013 in response to long-standing concerns that the department was over-responding to minor medical emergencies with multiple firefighters in gas-guzzling firetrucks. Fire officials had long argued that they needed to be in firetrucks so they would be ready for any call. But they said that position shifted with the increasing load of medical calls and budget crunches.

Monday’s agreement, which modified the firefighters’ current labor contract, puts two people on each unit, but they won’t always both be firefighters.

According to Mayor David Condon, the city will experiment with two different staffing models. One will have two firefighters on board. The other will have one firefighter and a social worker, nurse practitioner, physician assistant or other similar professional. Chief Bobby Williams said the position may even be filled by a medical school student or nursing student.

“It’s open,” Williams said. “We’re going to look at what alternatives are there to see what might work best for the community and for the department.”

Don Waller, president of the Spokane Firefighters Union Local 29, said collaboration between administration and the union led to the agreement and was crucial to future agreements.

Condon said the smaller response units have been effective because they help get the “right care to the right call” and leave other fire department resources available for fires and other major emergencies.

According to fire department figures, medical calls accounted for 81 percent of all calls that came in between 2010 and 2014. Just 2 percent of calls were for fires. In 2014, alternative units responded to 3,860 calls and were able to handle 2,233 incidents without backup, out of the nearly 30,879 medical incidences responded to by the fire department.

“The issue is we were seeing double-digit increases in these types of calls,” Condon said. Council President Ben Stuckart, who led the council in requiring two-person units, applauded the agreement.

“It means safety for our firefighters and safety for our citizens,” Stuckart said. “We passed an ordinance requiring two-person ARU units and they’re putting it into effect. So I will take this as a legislative victory.”

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