City to transfer ambulance services to Lake Valley Fire
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — The South Lake Tahoe City Council has moved forward with a goal to return the city’s fire department to its primary mission of fire protection and suppression after the council agreed to modify a long-standing partnership.
The city council voted Tuesday to unanimously amend the Cal-Tahoe Joint Powers Agreement and make Lake Valley Fire Protection District the sole ambulance provider for the city.
“We would be out of the transportation business,” city fire chief Jeff Meston said.
Under the revised agreement Lake Valley would take over ambulance services for South Lake Tahoe Fire Department (SLTFD), including the two stationed at the city’s Fire Station 2 across from Tahoe Valley Elementary.
While SLTFD would still respond to medical calls and administer on-site lifesaving aid, it would not have to transport patients.
The JPA, made up of Lake Valley and South Lake Tahoe fire departments, has an agreement with El Dorado County to provide three ambulances, but is only reimbursed for two. The county pays a flat rate, something Meston said doesn’t cover expenses. Under an old agreement before 2011 the county reimbursed actual costs.
Another issue is inter-facility transfers, or transporting patients to other facilities. Depending on the distance, it would both tie up resources and be cost-inefficient for the city, Meston said.
The city had 640 such calls in 2014 and 2015 appears to on track to surpass that number. By allowing Lake Valley to take over, it would free up valuable resources and allow the city fire department to focus on its primary mission of fire suppression, Meston added.
The city responds to approximately 3,200 emergencies annually with a 10-person crew. This is up from 2,000 calls with a 12-person crew in 2000, before the city began ambulance services, and 2,200 calls with a 14-person crew in 2001, after it secured the ambulances.
The city currently employs 34 fire personnel.
Meston said ambulance operations have diminished the SLTFD’s reliability for response times.
Under the new arrangement the city would reduce its shift staffing from 10 fire personnel to eight dedicated solely to fire and emergency response.
A paramedic would be added to each engine at Stations 1 and 3. The city would operate two three-person engine crews.
With Lake Valley taking over the two ambulances, it would give additional staff to the city. Meston said response time wouldn’t diminish because El Dorado County regulates that.
Lake Valley Fire Chief Gareth Harris said Lake Valley would meet the county’s required response times.
By redistributing the workload, SLTFD will be able to train newer fire personnel on their primary purpose of firefighting. Meston said that training was lacking because newer personnel received paramedic and EMS training first and often left after a short period without advanced fire training.
Meston said CalFire has designated South Lake Tahoe a high-priority fire risk area.
“What that means is we live in a forest, are surrounded by a forest and are very concerned about fire danger,” Meston said. Years of drought haven’t helped either.
He added that South Lake Tahoe has 120 hotels/motels with 5,000 rooms, which he called a particular risk. In 2014 the city responded to five hotel fires, one in which people were injured.
“We don’t see those hotels getting better any time soon as they are deteriorating,” Meston said. “That’s really what our fire hazard is about.”
On top of that risk, approximately 77 percent of South Lake Tahoe’s buildings were built before 1979 under a different set of fire codes.
Mayor Hal Cole called the amended contract a solid solution.
“We want the best level of service with the best response time,” Cole said, adding that the agreement will bolster Lake Valley’s ambulance fleet.
The Cal-Tahoe JPA board of directors will tackle the changes at its July 13 meeting. However, El Dorado County must still approve the changes.
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