As Pierce County’s population grows, so does the number of people calling 911.
Emergency responders at Central Pierce Fire & Rescue say they’re feeling the demand.
In an attempt to keep up with call volume, the department proposed a $1 per $1,000 assessed valuation levy lid lift that voters will see on their April 23 special election ballots. The department serves Puyallup, South Hill, Spanaway, Parkland, Midland and Frederickson.
Voters previously approved a $1 per $1,000 of assessed valuation levy, but that rate would drop to $.0.82 in 2020 due to inflation unless voters approve April’s levy, according to Central Pierce.
The proposal asks voters to restore the amount collected back to $1 per $1,000, equaling an extra $4 per month or $48 per year for taxpayers with an average home value of $305,000.
“The vast majority of this levy is about sustaining our current service levels,” Central Pierce Fire Chief Dan Olson said in an interview with The Herald.
Those service levels aren’t as reliable as the department would like them to be. Central Pierce Fire’s busiest stations are only about 80 percent reliable, Olson said.
“Twenty percent of time right now, if someone calls 911, (units are) not going to be available to respond to a call,” Olson said. “It’ll be the next closest station.”
That leads to an increase in call response, from 8-9 minutes to 12-14 minutes.
Those minutes can make all the difference, Olson said.
The proposed levy would address response times by allowing Central Pierce Fire to enlist two low-acuity units as part of a two-year pilot program meant to offset 911 calls that don’t require fire engines.
Low-acuity emergencies refer to non-urgent medical conditions such as flu-like symptoms, diabetic issues, checking blood pressure, falls and minor cuts.
The department planned to launch the pilot program in 2019, but it was postponed after the levy lid lift that was proposed in November failed with only 48 percent approval. Levies need 50 percent voter approval to pass. Central Pierce Fire last passed a levy in 2016.
In 2018, Central Pierce responded to more than 30,000 calls — a 14 percent increase since 2011.
Of those calls, 6,000 were low-acuity calls. About 65 percent of them occurred over the same 12 hours each day.
“People sometimes just don’t know what to do,” Olson said. “They’re calling 911, and we have the duty to act and try to help them … We become their health care provider.”
If the levy is passed, the department also plans to launch a Citizen Advocates for Referral and Education Services (CARES) program, which connects those calling 911 for minor emergencies to services outside of Central Pierce Fire’s scope of responsibilities, such as in-home care.
Taking the strain off engines and other fire vehicles, which can cost up to $800,000, can help them last longer and reduce cost to taxpayers, Olson said.
Voters pamphlets were mailed April 5.