For years, the Town of Steilacoom used an emergency response model rarely found in the United States.
Rather than hiring firefighters and police officers, the town relied on paid and volunteer public safety officers to respond to police calls, fires and non-life-threatening medical emergencies. The three-in-one model allowed the small town with little crime and few fires to protect its residents for a low cost.
That era ended last month when the picturesque town of 6,000 people contracted with neighboring West Pierce Fire & Rescue to fight fires and respond to medical emergencies.
The decision was another example of how fire districts are serving larger swaths of Pierce County through mergers or contracts intended to save money.
West Pierce was formed last year after voters approved the merger of the fire districts serving Lakewood and University Place. By one count, 14 of 24 Pierce County cities in recent years have stopped providing their own fire and emergency medical response and joined or merged with a fire district.
Steilacoom officials had been looking at alternatives for months as they recognized the town’s unique model was becoming strained. It took a lot of time to replace public safety officers, especially volunteers who routinely left for better-paying jobs, and it was challenging to train new hires on all three disciplines.
Police and fire academies are cutting back on certification classes because there’s less need for them as cities ax their budgets. That was pushing training opportunities for Steilacoom officers into next year, Mayor Ron Lucas wrote last month in the town newsletter.
“In my opinion, the ability for the town to staff and train public safety officers and fire volunteers is no longer reliable,” he wrote.
The other shoe dropped on Sept. 14 when AMR, a private ambulance company, notified town officials of a major change in its response.
For several years, AMR had stationed an ambulance at the town’s public safety building for up to 12 hours a day. The arrangement essentially gave the town free paramedic response for life-threatening emergencies. If the ambulance was on a call, emergency responders from nearby agencies responded. The town didn’t pay AMR as the company recouped its costs by billing the patient or his or her insurer.
With the change, AMR withdrew its ambulance from Steilacoom and instead dispatched from Federal Way, about 40 minutes away.
The company was not getting the number of trips in Steilacoom that it needed to break even financially, AMR spokesman Brant Butte said.
“There just isn’t enough call volume there to stay in business,” he said. “Maybe a call a day. I guess it makes sense to us that they partnered with a district next door.”
Town officials quickly signed an agreement with West Pierce to provide firefighting and emergency medical response through the end of the year at a monthly cost of $32,000. The town and fire district then negotiated a 10-year contract starting Jan. 1. The fire district’s board of commissioners finalized the contract Oct. 16.
The cost of the contract starts at $390,000 for 2013, with annual adjustments for inflation.
Lucas said the town can pay for the contract without asking residents for more money or laying off people. The town will use existing tax revenue, an annual $25,000 credit for equipment the town will transfer to West Pierce, and $25,000 in annual cost savings, such as hiring fewer seasonal employees or delaying purchases, he said.
Steilacoom’s career public safety officers will continue to respond to police calls and could help West Pierce emergency responders in the future. The town will end its use of volunteer public safety officers, and is helping those seven people find work at other agencies, Town Administrator Paul Loveless said.
Not everyone in Steilacoom is a fan of the change.
Billie Blattler, a retired Pierce College English professor who has lived in Steilacoom for 20 years, said the town’s investment in its own emergency response gave residents an “elevated sense we’re taking care of ourselves,” and she is disappointed Steilacoom is largely doing away with it.
Blattler, 75, recalled when she fell on her driveway in 2005 and suffered a concussion and how relieved she was when Steilacoom public safety officers came to her aid.
“I was really glad to see guys that I knew,” she said. “That was comforting for me.”
She also worried about longer response time, as it takes up to six minutes for West Pierce emergency responders to arrive in Steilacoom.
But Lucas said it could take twice as long to receive advanced emergency aid under the old system if the ambulance was on a call and emergency responders were dispatched from Lakewood, University Place or Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
West Pierce has three stations within a six-minute drive of the town and has more personnel and equipment to draw upon, he said.
“This is a much-improved response,” he said.Christian Hill: 253-274-7390 christian.hill@ thenewstribune.com @TNTchill