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February 15: Eugene-Springfield Fire

Fire Chief Mike Caven updated Springfield City Club on the current state of the Department at the February 15 program. He focused on two areas: 1) the current issues facing the Department and 2) what next steps to take in their efforts to provide unified fire service to the two communities. This latter represents the next step in a lengthy process which began in 2007 when the two separate fire departments began to remove boundaries to allow for more efficient and effective fire service.

A consultant retained by the department will meet with the Springfield City Council on March 4 to provide a preliminary report on what next steps might be appropriate.

The legislative session is something that Chief Caven focused on in his comments. He noted that the current session is attempting to address the impacts of Measure 110 passed by the voters in 2020. He said that Eugene/Springfield fire had observed a significant increase in overdose calls to which the department must respond. He said that now the department is averaging over 150 overdose calls a month. He credited some portion of the increase to the fact that Oregon does not have a robust health infrastructure to treat drug users. While he said that calls had almost doubled, he cautioned that the increase came at the same time as the arrival of significant amounts of fentanyl on the scene. “Conditions have changed,” he said, “and current statistics are not comparable to past figures.”

Separately from efforts to address the impacts of Measure 110 he said that Rep. Nathanson has introduced legislation which would help with the restructuring of the local EMS system which the Department started last year. If passed, he said, the legislation would allow for a more varied response to 911 calls. While the ability to triage 911 medical calls would continue, it would also make it possible to evaluate more varied responses depending upon the nature of the caller’s needs.

Chief Caven said that there still are circumstances where a person will call 911 in the belief that arriving at a hospital emergency room by ambulance will get them quicker service. That isn’t the case, the chief said. ER staff will continue to triage all patients because of the severity of their need, meaning that in some cases people arriving by ambulance will wait in the ambulance while other, more urgent, cases are treated. This is a major problem for the EMD system because it can mean that an ambulance sits waiting at the ER until its passenger is reached for treatment. This so-called “wall time” is a major impediment, putting ambulances out of service and unable to respond to other calls.

A reworking of the EMS system would make it possible for a nurse practitioner in the 911 system, to evaluate a caller and determine if transport is the most effective remedy or if some other form of assistance – CAHOOTS, some other community response, or even dispatch of a nurse practitioner to the field as part of a community response team might be a better mode of treatment.

Another part of the current effort at EMS redesign is to consider whether it really is necessary to pay someone as both a firefighter and an EMS technician with advanced life support skills. He said that studies by the EMS training facilities indicate that almost half of the students training to be paramedics do not want to be firefighters. “It may be the case that the era of crossing firefighters and EMS paramedics is over,” he said. Already, the Department has transitioned two of four ambulances to carry paramedics who are not firefighters. Another one will be transitioned in March.

With respect to the functional merger, Chief Caven said that the process of functional combination reached a point in 2014 where personnel began working across jurisdictional lines, but that the department still reported to both City Councils and maintained two separate budgets. In 2022 the two cities agreed that the governance process should be reviewed and designated two members of each council to explore options.

He said that a consultant was retained to identify alternatives and as a result four alternatives have been identified. These alternatives include 1) not changing anything; 2) moving to a single department under the jurisdiction of one city with the other city contracting for service; 3) creating a separate governmental entity (somewhat similar to the Metropolitan Wastewater Management Commission, with the difference that that entity would employ all staff; and 4) forming an independent fire district to provide fire and life safety service to both communities. He added that there is a fifth alternative – to undo the merger and go back to two separate departments — but that alternative is one “that no one thinks is a good idea.”

Chief Caven said that the functional merger of the two departments had provided significant operational efficiencies as well as improving the departments’ abilities to recruit and hire. He said the biggest strength of the combined department is “the capacity improvements that result from being together.” He noted that before the merger, one Springfield house fire would deplete all of that department ‘s resources. Now Springfield stations provide first response to some areas in east Eugene and some Eugene stations provide response to western Springfield. “If each city needed to protect its own area,” he said, “each city would need to build more fire stations.”

The briefings currently scheduled for the two city councils will not be decision points on any of these alternatives but will be an effort to share where the process is and get direction on how to move forward with one or more of the alternatives.

Chief Caven said that the fourth alternative – creation of an independent fire district is “probably the most challenging option” because it would involve creating a new taxing entity and raise complex questions about the level of taxation presently imposed by each city. The issue grows very complex when it is recognized that a significant portion of City property taxes now support fire and life safety services. Moving to a separate district would raise the question of what to do about the level of taxation if fire and life safety were funded by a separate taxing entity.

To see the entire program on You Tube, click this link: Fire Service Update


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