By Lyndsie Kiebert
The Bonner County Fire Chiefs Association hosted a series of presentations last week to share its findings from months of research on how to improve Bonner County Emergency Management Services. Though prompted by an initial understanding that county commissioners were seeking changes to EMS, the board has since decided that the system is functioning fine as it is thanks to recent improvements.
BCFCA President Mark Sauter led the presentations, the first of which on Oct. 26 attracted about 50 people to the Bonner County Administration Building, sharing the results of “hundreds of hours in interviews and data research” in an effort to build a feasible fire-based proposal for BCEMS. Sauter touched on what the chiefs association saw as the county’s main challenges: “geography, agency communication, call stacking, duplication of effort, remote locations and limited responders.” He also advocated for reallocating current EMS personnel and equipment to better serve the county.
“Our general belief is that we could have a more cohesive system for the same cost if we work together,” Sauter said.
The chiefs association began research in January after Bonner County commissioners said they may be considering a new direction for the county’s EMS system — possibly to a nonprofit model. The board noted at the time that it might release a request for proposals in the coming months.
“If there was an RFP, we wanted to make sure we could get our plan out there,” Sauter said.
Commissioner Dan McDonald told the Sandpoint Reader in May that the RFP would be postponed until the end of 2020. On Oct. 29, BCEMS Chief Jeff Lindsey told the Reader that the county is no longer considering an RFP — a statement McDonald confirmed Oct. 30.
“By every measure, Bonner County EMS is functioning at a far higher level than we believe they ever have,” McDonald wrote in an email Oct. 25.
When asked whether the county would no longer be seeking an RFP, Commissioner Jeff Connolly said in an email to the Reader that he only recalled the board deciding to push the RFP to 2020, and that cancelling it altogether would be “a discussion that all three commissioners will need to have.”
Commissioners hired current BCEMS Chief Jeff Lindsey in December 2018 as an interim chief, but made the position official over the summer. Lindsey worked as operations captain for BCEMS from 2011 to 2014 and currently serves as part-time chief for Boundary Ambulance, Boundary County’s nonprofit EMS service.
Lindsey said that by making a number of “positive changes” to BCEMS over the past year, he’s seen employee morale and performance improve. Some of those changes include restructuring management and updating equipment.
“You’ve got good employees, you’ve got a solid system in place,” he said. “The problem all along has been poor management.”
Lindsey said he was surprised to hear that the chiefs association still planned to release findings for how to improve BCEMS, considering what he felt were huge improvements since the initial talk of change in January.
“At the beginning of the year [the worry] was, ‘Are we going fire-based, are we going nonprofit, is some private [company] coming in here, what’s going to happen?’” Lindsey said. “Now, their jobs are safe, I’m appointed the director, commissioners are happy with the way EMS is going. The morale is getting to where it needs to be, and then I find out [the chiefs association is] still looking at how they’re going to get their hands back ahold of EMS.”
Connolly attended the Oct. 26 presentation, while Commissioners McDonald and Steve Bradshaw did not, citing open meeting law.
“I want to thank you for all the time you’ve put into this,” Connolly said to Sauter at the meeting. “It’s been a long project for you and I appreciate the time and effort. You’ve done a lot of groundwork for the county that can be utilized regardless of how we move forward.”
McDonald said he’s looked over the chiefs association’s suggestions for bettering EMS and “their plan would be less accountable to service as we see it, be financially a bigger hit to taxpayers and logistically challenging.”
“The BCFCA was warned that there is a legal process that we have to go through, and since we haven’t gone out for a competitive RFP, that their attempts to push the issue are highly irregular and border on potentially illegal should we consider their proposal outside of the legal process,” McDonald said.
Lindsey said he hopes the issue “quiets down.”
“If EMS is going to move forward with working with fire departments — whatever that might look like — it’s not going to be done in this current environment,” he said. “It’s very poisonous. It’s very toxic.”
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