For the last couple months, I’ve been working with a small and very talented group of volunteers on the Save Our FDs campaign advocating No on Proposition 1. It’s been fascinating and enlightening, and in my humble opinion, I can comfortably say that we know more about this RFA than anyone, including the consultants. That’s because of all the hours we’ve spent on in-depth research, not only on this RFA but on other RFAs, fire departments, and Fire Benefit Charges (FBC).
We’ve combed the plan details in the RFA spreadsheets we gathered from Public Records requests, which is the only way they are available. This research is why we know that we get no firefighters or engines or stations for seven years, and that the FBC is a poorly constructed, creatively fabricated and regressive fee that has no relation to the costs of providing services.
The deeper we got into our research, the more conversations we had, the more we found troubling and worrisome items beyond the larger issues in the RFA. Here are some of the things we’ve learned but haven’t had time to include in all the writing we’ve done.
The Fee Will Go Up
I heard from the Pro side at two forums from two different council members (current and former) that there is already a need for a new fire station, maybe two. But as we now know, there is no money in the RFA’s seven-year budget for a new station, let alone the engines or requisite firefighters. So if this passes, right out the gate there will be pressure to significantly raise the FBC for these additions.
And there is ample evidence that it will go up. In one example we found, Puget Sound Fire, a much bigger and older fire authority, had their FBC go up by 26% in just two years. I heard assurances from current and former councilors that even though the FBC could go up to over $40M, that would never happen. But even Pro campaign co-chair former Mayor Pete Kmet recommended in his testimony to the RFA committee that there should be a limit on the FBC (Dec. 12, 2022 RFA Planning Committee meeting minutes) but the committee rejected it as they were concerned “…it would limit the RFA’s ability to adapt to changing conditions in the future.”
Call information is confusing, inconsistent
Another picture we’ve been researching has to do with “calls for service”. Turns out the data about calls is inconsistent between jurisdictions and poorly understood. We looked at calls and response times, and some things stood out. First is that the Medic 1 Response Time Compliance Report shows much better response times than have been claimed by the proponents, right around six minutes. Even more confusing is trying to discern what the numbers mean. In many years the overall number of calls went up, but the response times went down or stayed about the same. In looking at national data, calls for fires stayed about the same for the past 14 years, but medical calls have dramatically increased. Which begs the questions: what are the actual problems we’re trying to solve and what do we really need to do about them?
Poor choice of consultant
Here's another tidbit we discovered. Turns out the consultant Emergency Services Consulting International that set the groundwork for the RFA Plan was not as objective as one would hope. This same consultant was fired in Palo Alto :
“....the city terminated the contract Friday, three days after a City Council committee heard a preliminary report on the study and learned that the consultant performing the study is affiliated with the International Association of Fire Chiefs -- a support network for fire chiefs and emergency services”
When I was on the City Council we were cautioned to avoid “conflicts of interest”, personal connections that could taint our objectivity, and be aware of the “appearance of fairness”, which means we don’t even want a whisp of impropriety or bias. These two concepts are to ensure that the city council is fair, open, and un-biased in their actions. Seems like the choice of the RFA consultant didn’t meet either of those requirements.
Easy to coordinate inter-jurisdictional response
We’ve also heard that it’s confusing and challenging to coordinate how and in which order teams were dispatched. The argument is that Tumwater and Olympia have confusing borders (they do) so we need one big fire department. But how we respond is simply an administrative decision.
Olympia and Tumwater can simply decide the line between jurisdictions for determining who is dispatched.
We also called Medic 1 to see how hard it would be to better coordinate responses including how to sequence teams to one or multiple events. Turns out it doesn’t sound like it would be difficult at all; we were told all the cities need to do is send them a letter and they’ll set the automated system to do whatever is requested.
Proposition 1 is expensive and poorly constructed, and trying to understand how it improves services is a challenge at best. The data and details of this proposal are unclear, not well understood and contain errors. Thus we can’t identify the specific problems we face, nor what the solutions are.
Providing life safety services is a priority, and as we now know, very complex and dynamic, changing as our population ages, our community grows, demands on all civic services increase and money becomes tighter.
The need is much broader than firefighting, requiring an agile labor force with new and specific skills to address all aspects of the demand for services. The cities must do a better job of evaluating and managing their resources to address these changes. Then, if and when they ask us for money, they will be able to clearly communicate their needs and expected results.
Pat Cole - email@example.com - is a former member of Olympia's city council. As a private citizen, he seeks to set a positive tone and lead informed discussions about local civic issues.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The opinions expressed above are those of Pat Cole and not necessarily of The JOLT or its staff or board of directors.
Further, if you'd like to express your opinions, please write them up and send them to us. If you've got questions about what would be acceptable, please call Danny Stusser on 360-357-1000 x1.
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