CHIMACUM — A new East Jefferson Fire Rescue mobile health response program that began Jan. 17 already has made a positive impact by connecting Jefferson County residents with the medical, behavioral and social services they needed.
EJFR commissioners at their meeting on last Wednesday, Feb. 15, learned more about the CARES (Community Assistance, Referral and Education Services) program from Jeff Woods and Leeann Peterson, who have contacted 79 people across the fire district to offer them the kind of assistance that emergency first responders often do not have the time or expertise to provide.
“It’s very inspiring what you guys are doing,” said Commissioner Gene Carmody, who participated in the meeting via Zoom. “It’s the greatest thing that’s come along in a long time and well overdue.”
Woods and Peterson receive referrals from EJFR first responders who determine after arriving at an emergency scene if an individual might benefit from a visit from the CARES team. They determine what services might be able help that person based on an interview and observation.
“We’ve had good and we’ve had bad days,” Peterson said. “But everybody receives us pretty well.”
Peterson said visiting people in their homes allows them to both address the immediate need for the referral, such as helping a woman whose husband had dementia, as well as check to make sure there aren’t any other issues that may be impacting someone’s health and safety. In this instance, it was a malfunctioning smoke alarm that he fixed while Peterson spoke with the woman.
“The batteries are chirping and they can’t hear it because they’re hard of hearing,” Woods said. “So, while they’re talking, I replace the batteries.”
The CARES team’s work helped the fire department, Commissioner David Seabrook said, because it delivered the kind of care people needed and lessened the impact on the 911 system.
“This used to be called above and beyond the call of duty, and you guys get to do that on a day-to-day basis,” Seabrook said. “But it also is reducing the amount of time that our units are on non-emergency calls.”
The board approved a plan to hire up to five certified paramedics and firefighter-EMTs using funds that had been budgeted for overtime, which the district planned paying $1 million for this year.
The big bill comes from the cost of personnel having to cover for those who are using their vacation time because EJFR doesn’t have enough the staff to cover the absences any other way.
(Although voters approved a levy lid lift in the Feb. 14 special election, the district will not see the revenue to hire additional firefighters until 2024.)
“Hopefully, we can offset the overtime into regular salaries and increase our FTEs (full-time employees) to build enough relief positions where people can take their vacation time without causing overtime,” Fire Chief Bret Black said.
The plan would not eliminate overtime or account for unplanned time off like sick leave or for retirements, Black said.
“This doesn’t talk about expanding our force, increasing our capability for an effective response force or anything like that,” said Battalion Chief Jason MacDonald.
It would simply be a way for the district to manage staff in a manner that would not create so much overtime.
Commissioner Deborah Stinson said she believed the plan was the right thing to do for personnel and that it made financial sense.
“It’s taking care of our people,” Stinson said. “And this is a much better use of the money by taking it out of the overtime budget and putting it into a regular paid position.”
In other action, Assistant Fire Chief Pete Brummel said a proposed change that would renumber station and equipment to a single-digit system would go into effect March 1.
For example, Station 1-6 in Port Townsend would become Station 1 and its engine would become engine 1; Station 2 and its engine would become engine 2, etc.
The goal is to streamline operations and create consistency across the district after Port Ludlow Fire & Rescue merged into EJFR on Jan. 1.
Although it was not on the agenda, EJFR firefighter-paramedic Caton White said he wanted to comment on the results of the Feb. 14 special election.
“The impact on our firefighters is hard to quantify,” said White, who appeared via Zoom. “We’re in a unique position as public employees because of the community and ultimately that’s who we have to answer to.
“We don’t have a lot of direct feedback or validation and our employer spoke and they spoke really loudly. They told us that they appreciate us. I know that our members heard that loud and clear. It’s hard to tell you how much that meant.”
Reporter Paula Hunt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.