Kirkland withholds support of Medic One levy, firefighters disagree

Kirkland is the only city withholding support of a region-wide Emergency Medical Services’ levy. But local firefighters this week called out city officials, urging them to leave the decision up to voters in November. - Contributed
Kirkland is the only city withholding support of a region-wide Emergency Medical Services’ levy. But local firefighters this week called out city officials, urging them to leave the decision up to voters in November.
— image credit: Contributed

Kirkland is withholding support of a region-wide Emergency Medical Services’ levy - opposition that could jeopardize the highly regarded Medic One system if a resolution to the impasse isn’t found soon.

But Kirkland firefighters this week called out city officials, urging them to leave the decision up to voters in November.

“Kirkland’s been working over 18 months to find and improve the service to Kirkland,” said Councilman Dave Asher, who serves on the EMS Advisory Task Force. “We think we’re close and we think we’ll see something in the next couple of weeks that will be something, we’ll get this levy passed and keep this super system together.”

On March 28 King County Executive Dow Constantine submitted an ordinance to the King County Council for the levy, which would fully fund the Medic One service. But the levy needs support from nine cities - those with more than 50,000 residents - before it can go to the voters this fall. Seattle, Auburn and Kirkland have not yet taken action, although Seattle and Auburn has shown support in region-wide task force meetings.

Asher said Kirkland is asking to become a paramedic provider for the next levy set for 2020.

“One of the key reasons is to have those highly trained emergency medic folks in our department,” Asher said. “The ultimate goal is to improve the services.”

Earlier this year officials in Kirkland voiced concerns about the amount of money Kirkland taxpayers pay into the region-wide system and the way EMS is slated to run over the next six years, should the levy be approved.

Kirkland City Councilwoman Penny Sweet recently went before the King County Council’s Regional Policy Committee to voice her city’s concern and opposition. Kirkland, she told members of the county council “feels it’s important to inform you … that unfortunately we’re not in a position to support the levy.”

In an interview February, Sweet stressed that Kirkland officials support the EMS system and want to see it continue. But, she added, “I wouldn’t have gone before the Regional Policy Committee if our concerns weren’t pretty significant.”

At issue, in part, is “equity” within the system, she said. The countywide levy rate — 30 cents per $1,000 of assessed value — costs Kirkland’s taxpayers about $1 million more than they receive from EMS.

Vashon, on the other hand, is subsidized by EMS; taxpayers pay about $700,000 into the system and receive more than $2 million from the region-wide service.

Sweet said she doesn’t begrudge Vashon residents for the subsidy; the island is one of several entities subsidized by EMS. But, she added, “We want something a bit more equitable than we have now.”

The current levy funds that region-wide Medic One service, and is considered especially critical to some city services, such as the Vashon Fire Department, which receives about half of its budget from EMS funding.

Kirkland’s opposition has raised alarm for cities such as Vashon, which would be hard-pressed to fill the financial gap should the EMS system unravel.

“There’s a huge amount at stake,” said Hank Lipe, chief of Vashon Island Fire & Rescue.

Money from the EMS levy funds the salaries of Vashon’s eight paramedics, highly trained responders who can make the difference between life and death for a person suffering from a heart attack or another life-threatening emergency, Lipe said. Vashon, because of its geographic isolation, is particularly vulnerable to any changes in the countywide system, Lipe said.

Kirkland firefighters are also concerned about the impact of not having a Medic Once service. They expressed their support this week for an EMS levy to go before voters.

“Initially, Kirkland was asking good questions,” said president of the Kirkland firefighter local union 2545. “After annexation, now we have a vote at the table. They were talking about being a service provider - how can we get [our own paramedic] unit?

“Unfortunately, that was more than six months ago. They’ve stopped talking about that. Now they’re talking about money. It’s a money grab [to get] a bigger piece of the pie.”

Redmond paramedics from EvergreenHealth Medical Center assist people in Totem Lake and downtown, paramedics from Shoreline assist the Finn Hill area, Bellevue paramedics assist south Kirkland and paramedics from Redmond assist the Rose Hill area.

Officials from the Kirkland Fire Department say victims of cardiac arrest in Kirkland are “many times more likely to survive compared to other national cities” because of the Medic One services.

In 2010, firefighters responded to more than 163,000 calls and medics treated more than 47,000 Advanced Life Support (ALS) patients in all of King County.

Medical personnel serve more than 1.9 million people in King County and respond every three minutes to medical emergencies and one out of 10 have used the Medic One/EMS system before.

Medic One is a widely hailed regional emergency response system — so good that “Sixty Minutes” once named Seattle the best place in the world to suffer from a heart attack. Premised on the idea that the first 10 minutes can make the difference in emergency response, two doctors at Harborview Medical Center and the Seattle fire chief at the time launched the system in 1970, inaugurating what was then a somewhat radical idea — that firefighters could be taught some of the same skills that doctors use to save lives, applying those skills in homes and on the streets.

Since then, Medic One has become a nationwide model, and the region continues to lead the country in response times and survival rates. According to Medic One statistics, a person who had a cardiac arrest in King County in 2011 had a 52 percent chance of survival, the highest to date anywhere in the country; nationwide, the survival rate is 10 percent.

The disagreement over Kirkland’s support of the levy unfolded during discussions over the past year, when a 19-member EMS advisory task force met to craft recommendations for the EMS levy and the strategic plan for the next six years. The current levy expires at the end of this year. Without a new levy, Medic One’s future would be uncertain and jobs could be at stake.

In January, King County published its 2014-2019 EMS strategic plan, crafted with input from the task force.

The plan calls for a continuation of the current EMS structure, funded with a 33.5-cent levy rate, which would bring in nearly $700 million over the course of the six-year levy. The task force voted 18-1 to support the recommendations in the plan; only Kirkland opposed it.

Sweet said Kirkland has several concerns aside from equity. Also at issue is the city’s desire to see its fire department offer what’s called “advanced life support” or ALS emergency services — life-saving medical response provided by highly trained paramedics. Kirkland currently receives that service from Redmond, which houses the service at EvergreenHealth Medical Center in Kirkland.

Sweet said Kirkland doesn’t expect to become an ALS provider immediately but wants to be “on a path to that.” But the task force didn’t go along with Kirkland’s request, she said, leaving Kirkland’s representative on the task force Councilman Dave Asher “beyond frustrated.”

The city needs to make their final decision by July before the King County Council can vote on the ordinance, however Vadney said the time to make these decisions is now.

Reporter Newspapers Editor Leslie Brown contributed to this report.

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