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Small cities ignite study of future emergency services

Study shows Troutdale, Wood Village and Fairview pay less then Gresham, but also have slower response from services


Government officials of Troutdale, Wood Village and Fairview gathered to discuss the possibility of reconfiguring fire services to the three East County cities.

The cities contract with Gresham for fire and emergency medical services, and the contract is up for renewal in July 2015.

This past summer, the three cities asked Portland State University to conduct a thorough and impartial study that would examine the reality of costs and service for the three cities and whether or not a fire district — independent of Gresham — would be the better way to go.

PSU researchers including Phil Keisling, director of PSU's Center for Public Service, and Dr. Kent Robinson, the project's manager, discussed their findings and proposed eight alternative options for fire service delivery to the three cities. The gathering was held Monday, Jan. 13, at Fairview City Hall.

The study

The study found that Troutdale, Wood Village and Fairview combined are far more likely to receive emergency medical services than to receive fire services. A structural fire occurs in the three cities once every 25 days, said Dr. Robinson.

“The current system meets high professional standards and is well integrated between fire, ambulance and police responders,” the study concluded. “However, the Gresham system is configured and operated on the basis of 'fire' responses, not medical needs.”

The study also found that residents of the three cities pay less than Gresham and Rural Fire District 10 residents. Respectively, Troutdale, Wood Village and Fairview pay $1.40, $1.50 and $1.29 per $1,000 of assessed value, and Gresham pays $2.03 per $1,000 of assessed value.

At the same time, those living in the three cities have slower response times, the study said, with fire personnel responding to more calls taking 6 minutes or longer and fewer calls responded to in 4 minutes or less. The nearest fire stations serving the three cities are Gresham's station 74 in northwest Gresham and station 75 in Troutdale. Locations plus overlapping calls stretch the system's reliability and increase response times, the study said.

PSU researchers said there are several options the cities have to improve service and response times, but of course, many of them come at higher costs.

Alternatives

Alternatives range from:

-Building an additional in-house fire station and hiring part-time crews to work 12-hour shifts during peak hours.

-Build one big, centrally located fire station with a smaller satellite station and hire mix of career firefighters and volunteers.

-Build a new, independent district funded by a voter-approved levy.

-Purchase emergency medical services from AMR (American Medical Response), and fire services from Gresham.

-Reopen Rural Fire District 10 and add additional services.

-Create an East Multnomah County Fire and EMS district, similar to Clackamas County.

-Or keep the current contract with Gresham and negotiate existing services.

Negotiations

PSU researchers responded to a number of questions by city officials, and Gresham Interim Fire Chief Greg Matthews said his department would be happy to help the cities in the process by giving them more information in addition to the PSU study.

If the three cities decide to negotiate a new agreement with Gresham, researches said they need to ask for a procurement contract that would set the standards of what the cities want in terms of services.

Keisling, director of PSU's Center for Public Service, reminded city officials they have limited resources issues and need to consider citizens' expectations.

Keisling said it wouldn't be appropriate to recommend the elected officials choose a certain option, but now that they have the data to decide if they'd rather do something independent of Gresham or work with Gresham to reconfigure the current system.

“You have 18 months to engage in conversation with Gresham, to other folks in the community and to your own constituents,” Keisling said. “There are few things as important to citizens at a local government, then these life or death services they have come to rely on.”

Troutdale City Manager Craig Ward raised a good point.

“We are kind of getting what we pay for. You want better response time? Cough up more money. (As for) Troutdale, I don't think we are in a particular place to cough up more money.”

Ward went on, “I do want better service. I do want faster response time. I hope to have a discussion with Greg and Scott (Lewis) and their team on ways we can improve response time with the existing contract. Just keep in mind, you kind of get what you pay for. If you want more, you have to pay more.”

Some of the questions the three cities had to ask themselves were: Do we want lower costs? Do we want faster response time?

There are more stations in Gresham than there are in Troutdale, Wood Village and Fairview. If you demand faster response time, how do you get it?

Fewer fires

Fairview Mayor Mike Weatherby said the purpose of the study was for the three cities to make a well-informed decision on fire service for respective citizens.

“Are we doing the right thing for our citizens in terms of service and price,” Weatherby said.

At the meeting, along with Weatherby, Troutdale Mayor Doug Daoust and Wood Village Mayor Patricia Smith agreed the cities would next, talk amongst themselves to decided what they want to do.

Keisling offered his final thoughts.

“If you think about the next 10 to 15 years, hopefully there will be fewer and fewer fires, and a lot more people who are older, given our demographics," he said. “While we may call these entities fire departments, they are really emergency medical response and increasingly fewer fires. These entities are providing mostly emergency medical care and will likely do more of that in years ahead.”

The question becomes, Keisling said, “Is there a different configuration of how you provide service that is better matched to what citizens are really needing.”

Banding together

At the beginning of the meeting, Fairview Mayor Mike Weatherby made a proposal to Troutdale and Wood Village city officials asking them to consider formally recognizing the three cities as one.

The mayor said the three cities are small enough that they are all recognized as small cities.

“Our cities have been working on sharing services,” Weatherby said. “What I'd like to see is a memorandum of understanding (MOU) saying they want to coordinate and cooperate and communicate between each other. Instead of when a council changes, we have these working relationships. Not in terms of voting or requirements, just in a way that lets people know, lets each other know, we have a good working relationship, in terms of services and costs,” he said.

In closing, Wood Village Mayor Patricia Smith said she'd also like the three cities to come to agreement.

“I really want our cities to work together,” she said. “The mayors like each other, I think. We are in agreement on a lot of things, and I think thats a milestone here.”

Smith suggested the three cities hire someone who "would put all cities interests to heart.”

“Gresham stands alone,” Smith said. “If we band together and hire someone to promote us, and split the cost, I think it's something I think we should pursue and I'd like everybody to think about.”




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