Oct. 2, 2019 — The Western Lane Fire and EMS Authority (WLFEA) officially began on Friday.
The non-taxing agency, which is run in conjunction between Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue (SVFR) and Western Lane Ambulance District (WLAD), is an outgrowth of the agencies’ intergovernmental agreement (IGA).
“I look at this as a dating process,” WLFEA Chief Michael Schick told SVFR and WLAD staff in a public luncheon on Thursday. “With the IGA,
they were dating. With WLFEA, the agencies are moving in together. If the two agencies decide to merge, that will be the marriage. The further you go down that path, you get more committed to this whole process.”
WLFEA is an outgrowth of the IGA, which was formed to eventually merge the two entities to both save costs and create operational harmony between the two agencies.
“We’re truly driving to drive us to ‘one team,’” WLFEA EMS Operations Chief Matt House said. “If you look back five years, 10 years, even 20 years, we’ve always worked really well with each other. But over the last three years [with the creation of the IGA], I’ve seen us working stronger together than I’ve ever seen. Operationally, that makes me extremely happy. It’s seamless and fluid on calls. We’re doing great things for our community, and that’s really the focus when you look at operations.”
While operations have been seamless, board control over the operations were not. The IGA stipulated that the fire chief had operational authority over both SVFR and WLAD, but was employed solely by SVFR.
“One of the pitfalls of the IGA was that Western Lane didn’t really have input,” Schick explained. “Through this IGA, I had oversight through Western Lane, but really, my bosses were the SVFR Board of Directors. Western Lane was allowed to have input, but that was just because the SVFR Board of Directors said they could have input.”
Looking to find a way to give WLAD official say over matters, such as the hiring and firing of the chief, the agencies entertained three options. The first was just changing the language of the IGA to give WLAD more authority, but “that didn’t fix anything and was only good as long as the IGA lasted. It wasn’t a long-term solution,” Schick said.
Another option would be that SVFR and WLAD could have decided to completely merge into one entity, but neither agency was fully ready to commit to that step.
The final option was to form a third entity that would have oversight by both agencies, but would still allow SVFR and WLAD to remain independent taxing districts. That eventually became WLFEA.
Operationally, SVFR and WLAD (along with their boards) will still be in charge of base operations: SVFR over fire prevention and suppression, WLAD over ambulance operations and Mobile Integrated Healthcare.
But WLFEA will house the administration, including Schick, House, Fire Ops Chief Jim Dickerson and office staff for both agencies. The budget for WLFEA will come from contributions from SVFR and WLAD.
As for the board of WLFEA, “the board of directors will have equal representation, two directors from each agency,” Schick said, pointing out that normally boards have an odd number of members. “But they went with four because if there is a tie, it has to go back to the other boards. If the WLFEA board is 2-2, it would go back to the SVFR and WLAD boards, and then it would have to be a majority of each board.”
At last week’s joint SVFR and WLAD board meeting, directors approved the adoption of the WLFEA, with members of the IGA committee, which officially dissolved Oct. 1, serving as the first WLFEA board through June, when two new board members — one from SVFR and one from WLAD — will be appointed to replace two current members through a nomination process. The process will be repeated on an annual basis to assure carryover of two previous board members each term.
“Our objective was to avoid the possibility of having four brand-new members of the WLFEA board at some point,” said SVFR Board President Ned Hickson, who will be among the four members of the new WLFEA board, along with Ron Green, Larry Farnsworth and Rick Yecny. “For this first term, members of both boards felt it was a good idea to essentially transition the IGA committee into the WLFEA board to assure a smooth transition. Then, starting July 1, two of us will be replaced by two new members, with two previous members staying on for an additional term, similar to how the SVFR and WLAD boards elect a portion of new board members each term to avoid filling a board with four brand new members.”
Schick acknowledged that both the creation of the board, and the reason for its existence, could be confusing for the public. To alleviate confusion, he listed a number of questions that he has heard from the public, as well as fielded some other questions from WLFEA staff.
Will the public notice any difference in emergency response?
“There won’t be any difference,” Schick said.
Both agencies have already been working together for years, and the public will see no difference in the level of services.
Even the logos will remain largely the same — the fire trucks will still say Siuslaw Valley Fire and Rescue, the ambulances will still say Western Lane Ambulance.
If there is one noticeable change, it’s how staff will answer the phone. Staff will now introduce themselves as “Western Lane Fire and EMS Authority” when someone calls into either the fire or EMS.
Will property taxes change because of this?
“There’s going to be no impact on the taxing district,” Schick said. “There won’t be any changes on the property taxes.”
Will this decrease cost for both agencies?
More than likely, though there aren’t any official numbers yet.
“We certainly think that it will,” Schick said. “But just having the efficiency in having fire and EMS under one umbrella, I think that’s worth doing it alone. But I think we will see some cost savings. We have seen some, and I think that will continue.”
Are SVFR and WLAD going to merge?
Unknown. While WLFEA is certainly an important step to merging the two agencies, neither board has expressed interest in speeding up the process.
“There’s been no discussion about an actual merger at the board level,” Schick said. “We’ll certainly talk about it. We’ve never said that there’s a certain date where they need to have things in place. Right now, we’re just focusing on if the authority will work.”
If the two agencies do decide to merge, what will it look like?
Again, the agencies are not at that point yet and will continue to be two separate taxing districts. But if they do decide to merge, “It will be fire-based EMS, essentially,” Schick said, pointing out that the majority of Oregon districts are EMS and fire combined.
“Will you have firefighters and medics on engines? Typically, that’s fire-based EMS,” Schick said. “But that’s in the future. Could we have EMS-only personnel? Of course, we could. Everything I’m saying is just a guess. But we’re getting to a point where the agencies are working so close together that combining won’t be that big of a difference for everybody. We’ll just go around and change everybody’s patch.”
Will this change the relationship between SVFR, WLAD and other emergency agencies, such as Mapleton and Swisshome/Deadwood fire districts?
“There is an option if they wanted to join this authority, but nothing’s going to change,” Schick said. “Western Lane will be there for their ambulance needs and Siuslaw Valley will be there for mutual aid responses, so they won’t see a different. The rumor is out there that we’re taking them over, but there’s been no discussion on that, and there’s no interest in doing that. That would be up to them, and they would have to drive that process.”
Will this be good for SVFR and WLAD?
Ultimately, Schick, House and others viewed WLFEA as a strengthening of both agencies.
“When you’re trying to build something, there’s a thousand puzzle pieces on the table,” he said. “We don’t have the puzzle completely filled out, but eventually it will be. Then we can say, here’s a roadmap [to merging]. But the goals haven’t changed. We’re still working together as one team.
“I’ve always felt that SVFR and WLAD should be the powerhouses on the west coast, and now I’m finally seeing it come true.”