Dozens of firefighters, EMTs could face layoffs as county considers fate of fire district

Paramedics stock image | Photo by FlairImages, iStock / Getty Images Plus, St. George News

SPRINGDALE — Residents of communities in the Zion corridor and employees of the area’s fire agency are concerned about how a proposed plan to replace department resources may affect emergency services in the area.

In this 2016 file photo, a Rockville-Springdale Fire District ambulance sits at the ready in Springdale, Utah, Aug. 10, 2016 | File photo by Mike Cole, St. George News

After nixing a 2018 budget proposal for the Rockville-Springdale Fire Protection District that would have levied a substantial property tax increase, the Washington County Commission is considering replacing the district’s current employees with contracted personnel from a different fire agency in order to reduce costs.

The proposed plan would utilize two on-site, full-time employees cross-trained in firefighting and EMS from the Hurricane Valley Fire Special Service District in place of the district’s current four on-call emergency responders.

The Rockville-Springdale Fire District was the first fire district to be created in Washington County after the two towns requested that the county create a fire authority for their area in 1983. At the time, the costs of running the district were mitigated by a workforce composed primarily of volunteers.

“The nature of the fire service has changed an awful lot since the early ’80s,” Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox said. “It was virtually an unregulated activity, but because of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and state-imposed requirements, these are really highly structured occupations now.”

As the viability of volunteer first responders has become infeasible, the district has been required to hire paid professionals. The district currently comprises approximately 25 paid employees, which, in 2017, worked on an operating budget of approximately $791,000.

In December 2017, the Rockville-Springdale Fire District board, in hopes of raising employee wages to $16 per hour, proposed a $1.3 million budget for 2018 that would have increased property taxes by an estimated 261.5 percent and standby fees by around 74 percent.

Read more: County revokes fire district’s budget authority over requested property tax hike

“I as a commissioner am not going to vote to just let them raise taxes when there’s a better more viable alternative available,” Cox said.

Cox, who ran in the 2016 election on a platform of fiscal responsibility, said the board’s inflated budget proposal convinced the commission that it was time to consider contracting the services of Hurricane Valley Fire District.

In this 2017 file photo, a Hurricane Valley Fire District engine responds to a crash in Hurricane, Utah, Aug. 12, 2017 | File photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

“We wanted to find out if there’s an effective alternative,” he said.

At a recent meeting, the Hurricane Valley Fire District board presented a budget proposal for contracted services that would amount to about $792,000 for a year of service.

Cox, who is also a board member of the Hurricane Valley Fire District, said he thinks the contracted employees would provide better service and response time because they will be stationed full-time at the fire station.

Hurricane Valley Fire employees start at $18 per hour or higher with full benefits, substantially more than the $13 starting pay for Rockville-Springdale employees with no benefits. The superior pay rate, Cox said, will also help the community retain qualified fire personnel.

“If we can enhance the service and response, increase the safety and lower the cost, why wouldn’t the commission be interested in doing that?”

Community concerns

Going from four on-call employees to just two full-time stationed employees has some residents of Springdale and Rockville and existing fire district employees concerned about how a reduced force could affect emergency services availability and response times.

“I don’t think two’s enough,” Ryan Carter, a paramedic for the Rockville-Springdale Fire District, said.

In his experience, Carter said, there needs to be a minimum of three people available to respond to critical medical incidents, allowing two medics to work on a patient in the back of an ambulance while another drives to the hospital.

“Just having one paramedic in the back for a critical transport is not a good idea,” he said.

Firefighting capabilities would also be hampered, Carter said, explaining that at least three firemen are necessary to appropriately tackle structure fires.

Carter, who is spearheading an effort on social media to save the Rockville-Springdale Fire District, said he thinks the district can continue operating with three on-call employees with a slightly lower budget than the one proposed by Hurricane Valley Fire District.

“If it’s just about the money, we can do it with three people,” he said, explaining that the budget he personally came up with would allow current Rockville-Springdale employees to be paid similar salaries as Hurricane Valley employees with the stipulation that they continue to not be offered benefits.

While the district’s base only covers about 800 residents, Rockville-Springdale responders also provide emergency assistance to the millions of visitors to Zion National Park each year.

In this 2017 file photo, Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox listens to concerns from Rockville-Springdale Fire District Chief Ryan Ballard about the district’s associated costs, St. George, Utah, Dec. 5, 2017 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

“I think they’re going backwards when we’re seeing record numbers of visitors in this canyon,” Rockville-Springdale Fire Chief Ryan Ballard said of the County Commission’s direction. “It’s bordering on insanity.”

The district doesn’t typically deal with a large amount of calls, Ballard said, but during the park’s busiest season when upwards of 20,000 visitors arrive at Zion National Park daily, the potential for high call volume and multiple simultaneous incidents rises.

While the district has automatic aid agreements with Zion National Park and Hurricane Valley Fire District for assistance, Ballard said both agencies are already overwhelmed with their own call volume.

“They can be tapped out at their staffing levels just like we can,” he said.

Ballard said he is also concerned about the potential job loss of the district’s many employees, who he said were offered an opportunity to apply with Hurricane Valley but with no guarantee of jobs.

“You can imagine, the 26 guys that I have, their families are kind of nervous.”

A matter of money

“I believe there are revenue streams available, but we haven’t got a lot of cooperation from other municipalities up here with helping to find revenue sources,” Ballard said. “I guess it does come down to money.”

Several business owners and residents in Springdale and Rockville expressed strong disapproval when the district board proposed the tax hike in December 2017.

“That’s what my concern is, and a lot of other people’s concern is, we don’t want to pay more money but we don’t want to lose the quick and efficient service that we have in town,” Michael Young said. “So, that’s the dilemma.”

Young is a Springdale resident who previously served on the Rockville-Springdale Fire District board but stepped down recently for personal reasons.

“I’m hoping that the county will try to figure out another way to support it and maintain the Fire Department that we have in Springdale,” Young said, “but I’m concerned that it may fall apart before they get to a solution.”

Cox said the communities are free to maintain their own fire authorities by establishing fire departments run by the towns themselves.

“I’ve assured both mayors of Rockville and Springdale that if they want to run their own department and keep that autonomy, they’re welcome to do it — they don’t want to. They requested a district back then and they really feel a district is the most effective way.”

Springdale Town Hall, Springdale, Utah, date not specified | St. George News

St. George News asked Springdale Mayor Stan Smith if he had any thoughts about how switching to a contract with Hurricane Valley could affect the Springdale community.

“The commissioners have assured us that there will be no change in service,” Smith said in a response by text message.

Fire districts are not autonomous entities, and their authority rests entirely with the County Commission.

“They have not been able to come up with a plan to provide fire protection except to double everybody’s taxes,” Cox said of the Rockville-Springdale Fire District, noting that the operating budget for Hurricane Valley is significantly less proportionately when its wider coverage area is considered.

After the County Commission dismissed its proposed $1.3 million budget, the Rockville-Springdale Fire District board, citing an inability “to continue providing emergency services while maintaining a budget within perceived acceptable levels,” asked the commission to assume control of securing continued emergency services for the district.

“This has not been a popularity-winning contest for the County Commission getting involved in this. We have the ultimate responsibility to make sure they have an effective fire service,” Cox said. “I understand this is disruptive. We all have to live with disruption. That’s always how things improve.

Rockville-Springdale Fire District board member Chuck Passek said no vote on accepting Hurricane Valley’s proposed contract has been made, but the matter will be discussed in a work meeting in Springdale Tuesday.

Ultimately, however, the decision to enact the contract rests with the County Commission, which Ballard said already appears to be a done deal – that he was told the transition would take place in a matter of 30 to 90 days.

“My guys and I aren’t real thrilled about this,” Ballard said, “but there’s unfortunately nothing we can do about it.”

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