At least two firefighters must respond to a call for help, the Spokane City Council decided Monday in a surprise decision that not even the fire chief was briefed on until just prior to the vote.
The requirement raises questions about the future of the city’s “Alternative Response Units,” which were 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.
Until recently, the SUV-like vehicles were staffed by just one person, but their use was suspended in May after a few incidents raised questions about their usefulness.
In one case an elderly woman died, and in another a lone medic was confronted by a violent man.
Mayor David Condon and Chief Bobby Williams pushed back against the council Tuesday, saying it acted prematurely and without adequate information. Condon said the council overstepped its authority as the city’s policymaking body.
Under the city charter, the council sets policy and the mayor executes the city’s operations.
“It’s clearly operational,” he said of the council’s Monday decision. “Mandating by ordinance is very unusual.”
At Monday’s meeting, Williams accused the council of ramming the ordinance through with no warning.
“No information about those instances has been requested,” Williams said of the incidents cited by council members. “Nor has anybody asked to speak to our medical director, who reviews each of those incidences.”
Stuckart rejected those assertions, saying he had spoken to the mayor about understaffing the units four weeks ago, and was told that the program would not be restarted before a thorough evaluation was done. As council members prepared to hear a report on the program at their Aug. 17 public safety meeting, they were informed by fire personnel that the ARU program would restart next week, with one-person crews.
“To me, it’s a danger to public and firefighter safety,” Stuckart said. “With no data or conversation, we had to put a stop to it.”
Stuckart said he was alerted to the potential dangers of the program by fire personnel.
According to Stuckart, the family of an elderly woman called 911 after she fell in the bathroom. The ARU took 16 minutes to arrive, even though personnel at Fire Station No. 16 were just a few minutes away. As the medic attended to the woman, who was not breathing, he called for advanced life support backup while the woman’s family retrieved emergency equipment from the ARU.
“If we had dispatched somebody who was three to five minutes away, or if we had two people, this might not have happened,” Stuckart said. “The lady was not breathing and passed away.”
Williams confirmed the woman’s death, but said 911 dispatchers had been told a woman had fallen and needed help getting up. The nature of the emergency was not relayed.
“I don’t think the outcome would’ve been any different if there were 50 people there,” Williams said.
In 2014, alternative units handled 2,233 incidents, out of the nearly 30,879 medical incidences responded to by the fire department.
Williams said the program was to restart next Monday because the safety concerns had been dealt with and agreed to by the Spokane Firefighters Union. Firefighters had been given self-defense training, and 911 dispatchers had more training on how to code and send out fire vehicles.
Condon said the pilot program generally was proving to be successful as a good balance between the expectation and cost of medical service. He acknowledged meeting with Stuckart in June to discuss the program, but believed the council president’s concerns had been dealt with after speaking with fire union officials.
“In my mind, I feel like we met those concerns,” he said.
Condon added that the council action has automatically triggered labor negotiations with the union because the ordinance created a change in working conditions. He said it was “unlikely” the program would begin anytime soon.
Don Waller, president of Spokane Firefighters Union, said the union and administration had worked through a number of modifications to the program since it began in the fall of 2013, but had never agreed to one-person units. He disputed Condon’s assertion that labor negotiations were forthcoming.
“We don’t see that this is changing anything or needs to be negotiated in any way,” he said. “We don’t really think any part of the agreement has been broke. Not by us and not by the city.”
Still, the ordinance has inflamed tensions at City Hall.
As Williams spoke to the council Monday night, Stuckart attempted to keep him to the three-minute limit members of the public are restricted to when addressing the council. Councilman Mike Allen intervened.
“Can I get some clarification on why the chief cannot speak to this more than three minutes, considering this is a staff issue and it affects some very important policy,” Allen said.
“Usually it’s the sponsor of an ordinance, not somebody that’s coming up and telling us it’s horrible,” Stuckart replied before giving Williams two more minutes to speak.
Williams pressed the council not to pass the two-person rule until the fire department presented data on the units to the public safety committee in mid-August.
Allen supported Williams’ request.
“This thing is a total failure to communicate between the administration and council and the department,” he said. “Rather than acting like adults and getting into the room and finding a solution, everyone runs to their entrenched positions and stands there and points fingers at the other party. I don’t support that.”
Allen said he would vote against Stuckart’s ordinance unless given more time.
“I can’t support it,” he said. “I’m not saying I wouldn’t support it down the line, if we can all get in the same room and discuss it, but I can’t support it as it is.”
Councilman Jon Snyder, chairman of the public safety committee, said the council had been requesting information on the program for months, with no response.
“This program is supposed to do one of two things, and hopefully both. It’s either supposed to save the city money or provide better service to increase public safety to the citizens of Spokane. Ideally both,” he said. “I cannot sit here and tell you if it’s doing either one of those yet, because I have not been provided with that data, with that information.”
The ordinance passed 5-2, with Allen and Councilman Mike Fagan opposing it, enough votes to thwart any veto threat by Condon.
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