Hoquiam says citizens can’t support non-paying fire districts

The City of Hoquiam is no longer providing emergency medical treatment and ambulance service to three rural fire districts in the county after the districts failed to pay their bills for several months.

Fire District 8, located at Pacific Beach; Fire District 16, located at Copalis Crossing, and Fire District 17, located at Humptulips, will continue to have some emergency medical service — but unlike the Hoquiam’s paramedics, the fire district’s emergency medical technicians aren’t licensed to preform many life-saving procedures.

Two of the districts, Fire District 16 and Fire District 17, have been in debt to the city for years. Both have had a negative balance since 2009. Fire District 16 currently owes the city $16,754 and Fire District 17 owes $18,566, according to Hoquiam City Administrator Brian Shay.

Since having service cut off, Fire District 8 has paid its negative balance of $15,466 and doesn’t currently owe the City of Hoquiam any money. But Shay said city officials won’t renew its contract to be the sole EMS provider even if all three districts pay their bills in full.

“Firstly, we want to be paid for what is owed,” Shay said. “And secondly, we need to find a long-term solution for the problem.”

The Daily World made several calls to chiefs and commissioners of the three fire districts, none of which were returned.

Michael Lopez, a Department of Health official who oversees emergency medical service coverage, has been working with the districts to find a long-term coverage fix. But he said the districts do have some coverage in the meantime, although it’s not the same quality of coverage as provided by the City of Hoquiam.

Lopez explained that the City of Hoquiam’s EMS responders are certified to administer advanced life support, while the fire districts are only allowed to administer basic life support. Advance life support responders are paramedics who have undergone about 2,000 hours of training. They’re allowed to administer certain medications, insert breathing tubes and connect patients to IVs.

Basic life support responders are emergency medical technicians (EMTs) who have about 180 hours of training. They’re only allowed to perform non-invasive procedures.

“There isn’t an absence of coverage in the districts, there just isn’t advanced life support coverage,” Lopez said. “Is it the same level of service as provided by the City of Hoquiam? No, it’s not.”

One solution for the lack of advanced life support response in the districts would be to secure more training for the EMTs so they can administer more medication. A second solution is to find another EMS provider who will contract service in the same way the City of Hoquiam did.

Lopez sent a letter to all of the EMS providers in Pierce, Thurston, Lewis and Grays Harbor counties to notify them of the opening. Agencies interested in providing service mus submit applications by August 5.

But for now, the three departments are banding together to make sure those who need assistance and transport receive it. Fire District 8 owns and operates an ambulance, and is allowing the other two districts to share it, Lopez said.

State Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, lives in Fire District 16 and has become involved in the fight for better EMS coverage. He called Shay and Hoquiam Mayor Jack Durney to discuss the problem, and has been working with the districts to find a solution — and to make sure the City of Hoquiam is paid the remainder of its money.

“My goal is to see that the City of Hoquiam gets the money that they deserve and make sure we have coverage in all areas,” Hargrove said.

According to a report written by Shay, the city stepped up efforts to have the districts pay their debts last year. City staff met with commissioners and chiefs from Fire District 16 and Fire District 17 in October 2012 in the hopes of having the districts pay their bills by the end of 2013.

All three districts were sent letters Dec. 7 outlining payment timelines and letting them know service would be terminated if the terms weren’t met. All three districts failed to meet payment deadlines.

On June 6 of this year, city officials sent another letter letting the fire districts know that if they didn’t pay their balances in full by July 1, service would be terminated that day.

“The City of Hoquiam certainly does not want to discontinue providing services, but at the same time, it cannot continue to allow the citizens of Hoquiam to have to provide funding for these services,” the letter read.

None of the districts met this deadline, and service was terminated. Fire District 16 and Fire District 17 still owe the city a combined total of $35,320.

Shay said the City of Hoquiam provides EMS service to four other districts, all of which are current on their bills.