East Pierce Fire and Rescue firefighters and EMS teams are always busy, but 2016 looks to have been a particularly busy year for the department.
Every year, East Pierce releases an annual report detailing what the department achieved in the last year, as well as various facts and stats.
Last year, the department was called out to more than 10,000 calls — a new record for East Pierce.
“This workload places a strain on our firefighters. Many days they go from one incident to another, not returning to their station for hours. Not only does this create stress, it also reduces the time available for training,” Fire Chief Bud Backer wrote in the opening message of the report. ”I’m proud of how our firefighters have responded to the challenge, but I’ve got to get them some more help soon. We cannot continue providing quality response at this pace with so few firefighters.”
CALL VOLUME INCREASES
High call volume numbers aren’t new to East Pierce.
For the last five years, the department has set new records for how many total emergency calls it responded to.
Last year, the firefighters and EMTs responded to 10,259 calls, around 400 more calls than in 2015, and twenty percent more calls than what was recorded in 2012.
EMS calls made up the vast majority of emergency calls last year.
“In the past several years, the number of emergency medical service calls has increased significantly. In fact, EMS calls now make up 75% of all 9-1-1 calls handled by East Pierce,” Backer writes. “East Pierce units responded to 7,702 EMS incidents in 2016 — an average of 21 emergency medical services (EMS) related incidents per day.”
Fire calls were down this year from 2015, dropping from 347 calls to 268.
The drop is partially attributed a particularly dry summer in 2015, when there were several high-profile blazes in the area.
The department also responded to 928 “good intent” calls, 750 service calls and 475 false alarms.
The record number of calls this year appears to have an effect on East Pierce’s response time to emergencies.
“Response times increased due to the rising call volume and reliance on ‘second in’ units responding to calls when the closest unit was already on a call,” the report reads.
Last year, the average response time was 7 minutes and 10 seconds, which is 27 seconds slower than the average response time in 2015.
OLDER BABY BOOMERS, LESS DOCTORS
This five-year trend of ever-growing call numbers, especially EMS calls, is only expected to continue.
One reason is because of the aging “Baby Boomer” population.
According to East Pierce’s report, people over the age of 65 call 9-1-1 close to two or three times more often than younger people.
There’s also an increasing number of assisted living facilities in East Pierce’s district.
Two more senior housing buildings were built last year, bringing the area’s total to seven.
According to the report, every resident in these buildings generate between two and three EMS transports a year on average — a 9-1-1 call rate close to 30 times more than the average citizen.
Between 2014 and 2016, call volume from assisted living facilities increased from 638 to 909, a 42 percent increase in two years.
East Pierce expects more than 20 percent of its EMS calls originate from these facilities this year.
Other reasons why EMS calls are expected to continue increasing include a shortage of primary care doctors and the expansion of health care coverage.
According to a 2016 IHS Inc. report to the Association of American Medical Colleges, there will be a shortfall of between 14,900 and 35,600 physicians by 2025, based on current trends.
While some of the annual report inevitably contains bad news, it also focuses on some of the achievements the department made last year.
Overall, East Pierce hired four new firefighters/EMTs and was able to increase minimum on-duty staffing from 21 first responders to 22, putting the department’s ladder truck back into service, since the truck needs a minimum of three firefighters to operate.
The department also transitioned their radio service from VHF radio, which had a frequency range of 156 to 174 megahertz (MHz) to a 700 MHz radio, which the report states will provide better service coverage and radio clarity.
East Pierce also transitioned to the South Sound 911 dispatch agency.
On the EMS side of the department, East Pierce completed its first year of a Center for Disease Control-funded grant program aimed to improve how first responders can treat stroke patients.
The department handles between 150 to 200 stroke calls a year.
Additionally, the department finished its first year partnering with Northwest Physician Group and CHI Franciscan to identify frequent 9-1-1 callers in order to refer these callers to nurse case managers, with the goal of finding medical or social services for these frequent callers to reduce unnecessary 9-1-1 calls.
“This partnership has slowed the rate of increase in EMS call volume, eliminating 150 or more 9-1-1 calls through the case management program,” the report reads.
Alongside career firefighters and paramedics, East Pierce employs 19 volunteer firefighters that man three stations in the district.
Volunteers are trained to be firefighters and emergency medical technicians, and are required to continue to hone their skills by attending at least 200 hours of weekly drills per year.
Volunteer firefighters often work with career firefighters to bring up daily staffing levels, assist during large incidents or backfill stations in case of a second call.
This last year, volunteer firefighters responded to 151 general alarms and 713 incidents.
Volunteer firefighters also help in the public education field, and participated or hosted 44 public education events like the SafeSitter program, CPR and first said classes, helmet and life jacket fittings, as well as the National Night Out event, Bonney Lake Days, and the annual East Pierce Open House.
Last year, 11 East Pierce volunteer firefighters have been working with the department for 10 years or more; Brain Dougherty, Tim Balding, Mark Nevill, Sara Arneson, Ken Bannink, DeAnn O’Leary, Luzia Ballew, Noel Fitzgerald, Sean Slattery, James Walker, Luis Szarko and Kyle Mosher.
Overall, the report underlines the department’s need for additional funding, Backer wrote in his introduction.
Even though voters approved a EMS levy lid lift in April 2016, raising the levy back to its maximum of $0.50 per $1,000 in assessed property value, the fire levy depreciated this year, dropping from $1.50 to $1.387 per $1,000 in assessed property value.
Backer estimated that drop cut East Pierce revenue by around $1.3 million.
“We had hoped to take a few steps in addressing some of our staffing and resource shortages with the anticipated revenue growth,” Backer wrote. “Now, we’ll just have to settle for a baby step or two and consider asking you to lift our levy lids again.”
There will be two propositions in the upcoming primary: Proposition No. 1 resets the fire levy to $1.50, and Proposition No. 2 will keep the fire levy at $0.50.
Both propositions would keep the levies at the maximum collection levels for four years, with a cap so the department cannot collect more than six percent in growth from the previous year.
In total, the department hopes to collect around $114.5 million in those four years, assuming there is six percent growth each year.
The money, in part, will help support nine new firefighters the department plans to hire with the help of a four-year FEMA grant.
“The grant covers a sizable amount of the cost over a three-year period for new firefighters. During that time, we anticipate that revenues will grow in order to support maintaining those new positions,” Backer wrote. “Our intent is to add a third firefighter to three of our five engine companies. This will improve capabilities when arriving on a fire scene, and also reduce the number of fire engines that we currently send to incidents that require additional personnel.”