EVERETT — The City Council is rethinking the size and shape of the Everett Fire Department.
Everett paid a consulting firm $66,400 to study the issue, and a draft report went before the council in August. The 216-page report did not make any final recommendations.
Controversy, though, has stirred from suggestions in the document to close two of Everett’s six working fire stations, reduce the number of firefighters on staff, and rework how firefighter shifts are scheduled.
The council isn’t expected to make any decisions for several months.
The city had asked the Missouri-based consulting firm Fitch and Associates to study two issues, said Guillermo Fuentes, a partner at the firm. The first was to create a breakdown of Everett’s emergency risks — day-to-day medical calls as well as major disasters — and what’s needed to keep people safe.
The second issue was whether there might be cheaper, more sustainable ways to deliver the same services. The consultants relied on data, fire station visits and interviews with department leaders, including the union.
“This is really about creating options,” Fuentes said. “This should be considered the beginning of a process.”
The proposed changes could save the city more than $8 million a year, according to Fitch, but nearly every change is subject to negotiations with the union, Local 46.
On Friday, Local 46 President Paul Gagnon said the Fitch report was “rigged” and the council needs better information to make decisions.
“We believe fewer firefighters means slower response times, unstaffed emergency rigs and an increased risk to the public,” Gagnon said in a prepared statement. “That’s not sound public policy in our view. That’s a gamble.”
For now, the discussion is taking place within the council’s public safety committee. Much of the talk during the Oct. 7 meeting centered on which choices should be up to management and which require major policy decisions from elected council members.
“I don’t understand why we’re being asked to make decisions that we really don’t have the expertise to make,” Councilwoman Brenda Stonecipher said.
Everett, like many cities, faces ever-rising costs for public safety. The police and fire departments accounted for roughly half of the city’s expenses in 2015. The fire department’s budget of $29 million includes emergency medical services, but not other costs such as retired firefighter pensions, fire trucks and aid cars.
The department has nearly 190 employees. The fire stations that could be closed are Station 4, at 5920 Glenwood Ave., and Station 5, at 6801 Beverly Lane.
A large number of emergency calls in Everett are for medical incidents that aren’t serious and don’t end in a trip to a hospital. Fitch said the city could hire a private company to handle those calls.
“The core function of fire departments was to respond to emergencies,” Fuentes said. “We’ve kind of had a scope creep over the years, and we’ve responded to less and less emergencies and more and more (non-serious) medical calls because nobody else in the community was picking those calls up.”
People in Everett also have complained about seeing fire trucks responding to medical calls, Mayor Ray Stephanson said during the Oct. 7 meeting.
That “doesn’t look very efficient to them and it certainly doesn’t look very efficient to us,” Stephanson said. “Collectively we have to figure out what is that best way?”
Fires make up just about 10 percent of the department’s emergency calls, according to the report. If the city doesn’t outsource lower-level medical calls, which are expected to grow along with the city’s population, city managers might need to create a new job description for those who handle those calls, the mayor said. That sort of thing would be subject to labor contract negotiations, though.
“It is a very complicated and it is a very complex issue that has labor ramifications,” the mayor said. “I think all of us agree on one thing, and that is we’re not going to jeopardize the safety of our community.”
The consultants also said Everett could reduce staffing at night, when there are fewer 911 calls, and create extra teams who work during peak times.
The study did not look at outsourcing the fire department or otherwise consolidating services with nearby fire districts, a popular topic in Snohomish County these days.
Stephanson said he has never seen a successful model proposed to Everett, in particular one that includes an exit clause if the city isn’t happy. He would be willing to talk about it, if the council requested it, he said.
“When I added all the pluses and minuses, my direction to the (fire) chief was I think it’s a bad idea, and it’s something, at this point, I just wasn’t willing to pursue,” he said.
The study also didn’t focus on the aid agreements between Everett and neighboring agencies, which govern how Fire District 1 and Everett firefighters, among others, help each other out during busy times and major incidents. Both aid agreements and outsourcing came up at the recent meeting.
In August, though, commissioners at Fire District 1, based in unincorporated south Everett, complained that district resources were too often being deployed to cover calls within city limits. That could become a sticky topic, with the fire district considering possible negotiations with the city over a potential charge per incident. That move, if it happens, is guaranteed to inspire spirited debate.
Meanwhile, Stephanson has asked Fire Chief Murray Gordon for monthly progress reports on the Fitch study talks. Information from those reports is supposed to be shared with the public.
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; email@example.com.