NWFR commissioners discuss overtime pay, EMS planning

Published on Fri, Jul 22, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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The North Whatcom Fire and Rescue (NWFR) Board of Fire Commissioners monthly meeting was last night (July 21), at the Blaine fire station on Odell Road. The commissioners' meeting is the third Thursday of every month. Last night's meeting covered a range of topics, so forgive the long and somewhat disjointed nature of this post. I predict at least one full story for next week's issue will find its way out the notes I took on this meeting.

NWFR fire chief Tom Fields had only positive things to report about the consolidation with Fire District 4, which covers northern Bellingham (Read more about consolidation here and here). The districts' services have been consolidated for 21 days, and division chief Henry Hollander said the two districts are just about fully functionally operational. Fields said he heard a NWFR volunteer at a District 4 station say, "It isn't as bad as everybody thought it would be."

The commissioners and Fields expressed worry at the amount of overtime pay that has been issued recently. Assistant chief John Swobody said about $42,000 has been paid out over the last five months from NWFR's overtime budget. Training, sick time and callbacks, when off-duty firefighters are called to man a fire station when the station's on-duty personnel have been called to a fire, have been accounting for a great deal of overtime recently, Swobody said.

Swobody and Fields said they will come to the commissioners' August meeting with a spreadsheet breaking down where overtime fund have been spent. Fields said sick leave will probably account for the most overtime payments. Fields said he wants to find out if sick leave is lining up with healthcare payments and determine how much sick leave is being used for more serious injuries or health issues. Fields and the fire commissioners were quick to say they're not accusing anyone of misusing sick leave but would like to find out more about the recent increase in overtime payments.

Fields also provided an update on the county-wide emergency medical system (EMS) planning process. The county's fire districts have been tasked with finding an alternative to Whatcom County Medic One, the county's current advanced life support system. The Whatcom County Council last year voted to dissolve the agreement with the city of Bellingham governing Whatcom Medic One. The council's vote gave the county's fire district's three years to come up with an alternative.

Fields, who is involved with the EMS planning committee, said a proposal for an alternative to Medic One is slowly but surely emerging. The new entity formed under the proposal would have a six-member governing board (thee county council members and three Bellingham city council members), a head administrator and a sizable planning commission, which would include representatives from the county's fire districts and medical professions (doctors, nurses, etc.) This entity would become a not-for-profit corporation and hire the county's fire districts as contractors.

Fields said how this entity would be funded is still up in the air. The county council is expecting a bare-bones plan for a Medic One alternative by the end of the year.

For background on the Medic One issue, see my story here.


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