Ore. firefighters urge residents to oppose city plan to cut ambulances, staff

Firefighters fanned out across Baker City to talk with people after the city announced that it intends to stop ambulance service in September


Jayson Jacoby
Baker City Herald

BAKER CITY, Ore. — Baker City firefighters were joined by a few dozen of their colleagues from around Oregon to go door to door with the message that the city's plan to stop operating ambulances and cut the firefighting staff by about half poses a threat to public safety.

On Tuesday morning, May 3, firefighters in groups of two fanned out across the city to talk with residents and leave leaflets on doorknobs.

The laminated fliers read: " Baker City: Your safety is at risk! Firefighters protecting our community will be cut by 50%. We need your help to keep Baker City safe."

Tuesday's canvassing of Baker City neighborhoods, coordinated by the Oregon State Firefighters Council.

About 40 firefighters, from cities including Pendleton, La Grande, Hermiston, Portland, Salem, Clackamas and others, gathered at Crossroads Carnegie Art Center to don yellow T-shirts provided by the Firefighters Council, collect handfuls of leaflets and get an assigned neighborhood.

Karl Koenig, a retired firefighter from Happy Valley, near Portland, and president of the Firefighters Council, told the assembled firefighters that the goal was to distribute 1,500 leaflets by noon.

Casey Johnson, a Baker City firefighter/paramedic and president of the local union chapter that represents firefighters, joined Ron Morgan, a district vice president for the Firefighters Council, to talk to residents in northeast Baker City, along H and Birch streets, on a sunny but blustery Tuesday morning.

Johnson said it is "real humbling to see the support and have like-minded firefighters from throughout the state who see the crisis that's been created and want to help get the message out."

Johnson said he believes it's crucial that Baker City residents hear directly from firefighters.

He and Morgan encouraged residents to support the firefighters and to express their concerns to the City Council.

"People need to actually take action and not just be mad about it," Johnson said.

The effort was prompted by the Baker City Council's decision on March 22 to notify Baker County, which by Oregon law is responsible for providing ambulance service, that the city intended to stop operating ambulances Sept. 30, 2022.

If that happened, the county would have to find a different provider, likely a private ambulance company.

The county recently approved a request for proposals for ambulance services in an area that includes Baker City and about two-thirds of the rest of Baker County. The deadline for potential providers to respond is June 3. The county's request for proposals calls for a minimum 5-year contract.

Baker City Manager Jonathan Cannon, who recommended the City Council send the notice to the county on March 22, contends that the city can't afford to continue operating ambulances beyond Sept. 30.

Cannon cited the shortfall between what the city spends to operate ambulances and the amount it collects from patients.

The city hasn't for at least a couple decades collected the full amount it bills, largely because a majority of the patients it transports — about 80% — don't have private insurance but are covered by either of two federal programs, Medicare and Medicaid.

Those programs reimburse the city for only about 20% of the amount it bills, according to the city.

The shortfall averaged about $730,000 for the past five fiscal years, and the city projects a $581,000 gap for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, 2022.

Cannon said that with ambulance call volumes increasing, he expects the city would need to hire three more firefighter/paramedics later this year, which would widen that financial gap.

Baker City's firefighter/paramedics are cross-trained, meaning they respond to both fires and to ambulance calls and other emergencies. Ambulance runs account for 80% to 85% of the department's calls.

Johnson, the local union president, disputes Cannon's contention that the city would need to hire three new employees later this year.

Johnson does agree that if call volume trends continue, the city would need to hire more staff eventually.

He said the union's goal is to keep the city's ambulance service operating for at least the next fiscal year, which starts July 1, 2022. That would give city and county officials time to look for a new, stable revenue source. They have recently discussed asking voters to approve a property tax levy or to form a new taxing district for public safety.

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(c)2022 the Baker City Herald (Baker City, Ore.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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