Already faced with problems in their public safety departments, DuPont city officials are looking to stanch the anticipated bleeding when three grant-funded firefighters lose their jobs next month
The layoffs would leave two options that city officials say put the South Pierce County community at risk: Wait for a private ambulance or volunteers to take a patient facing a life-threatening emergency to the hospital, or leave the community without any emergency responders if the city handles the transport.
“That’s a dangerous gamble in my opinion,” Earl Strausbaugh, a DuPont firefighter and the president of its union, said Wednesday.
Added Councilman Mike Courts: “The situation we’re going to find ourselves in in another month is unacceptable.”
Mayor Michael Grayum presented a recommendation Tuesday night to avoid what city officials say would be an unprecedented situation in Pierce County. Grayum said Wednesday that he’ll bring back a specific proposal for the council’s concurrence this month or in early July.
The pending firefighter layoffs are more bad news for a city that was ordered recently to pay or repay a total of $600,000 to state pension funds and has no one running its fire department.
Other cities and public agencies in Pierce County also are grappling with what to do as grants that pay for firefighters, police officers and other employees expire. DuPont’s situation, however, is more severe.
The firefighters’ last day is July 15. The city received a federal stimulus grant in 2011 for $540,000 to pay for three firefighters for two years. The city was able to extend the grant for a few months but was unsuccessful at renewing it long term.
The layoffs would drop the minimum daily emergency staffing from three firefighters to two. Firefighters in DuPont also are trained to provide medical aid for basic medical emergencies, such as falls and fender-benders, but not for life-threatening emergencies, such as heart attacks and strokes.
State regulations require two emergency responders transport a patient to the hospital because one person can’t drive and provide care at the same time.
Meanwhile, DuPont can’t rely on private ambulance services and neighboring fire districts to respond in a timely manner because they’ve pulled back.
West Pierce Fire and Rescue had provided transport services in DuPont for critically ill patients when a unit was available. It stopped that practice at the beginning of the year because there were fewer units responding to more calls within its own district boundaries, Chief Jim Sharp said.
“We’re discovering we can’t just depend on others to come to our aid,” DuPont City Councilman John Ehrenreich said.
In the wake of West Pierce’s decision, Grayum created a volunteer program to assist career firefighters with basic emergency medical response and transport.
His recommendation would retain one firefighter to keep the minimum staffing level at three firefighters and contract with another agency to provide an officer to oversee daily operations of the department.
The estimated cost through the end of the year is $94,250. It would be paid from unanticipated sales-tax revenue and savings the city realized when Fire Chief Greg Hull resigned and a finance job was left unfilled.
Grayum said he will soon propose fixes for 2014 and beyond. Courts also suggested a possible ballot measure to increase the city’s sales tax by one-tenth of 1 percent to solely fund public safety.
Hull resigned from the city this month after the state notified him it was stopping his pension checks. The state’s scrutiny came as a result of a series of stories by The Associated Press that found the retired Lakewood fire administrator was continuing to draw pension checks while working as a contractor for DuPont.
The Department of Retirement Systems ordered the city to pay and repay a total of $600,000 to pension funds because of wrongly classifying Hull and two other employees, including the former police chief, as independent contractors. The city still is considering its response and could file an appeal.
The resignation left the city without any leadership in the fire department. Because of budget cuts, the city ended a contract with West Pierce that provided a battalion chief to run day-to-day operations on a part-time basis.
The state finding also has hindered the city’s ability to hire a permanent police chief.
Strausbaugh, the fire union president, said the uncertainty has hurt morale and added stress to the understaffed department.
“It’s frustrating,” he said “It’s so unfortunate that (the city) put us in a situation that we have to endure this kind of stuff.”