Prior to 2014, only 20 percent of victims of cardiac arrest that the Bend Fire Department responded to survived. Today, 70 percent of them survive.

The rate is one of the highest in the nation, said Bill Boos, chief deputy of administration for the Bend Fire Department. “That is phenomenal,” he said.

But the change that fire officials say has saved lives — a levy that funds additional emergency personnel and the swifter response times they helped create — will expire in May 2019. In order to maintain the survival rate and staffing, fire officials plan to ask the public to continue to support the department at current levels.

The dramatic improvement in survival is the result of decreasing response times by about a minute. In 2014, the department started hiring emergency medical technicians to dispatch to some calls, rather than staffing every ambulance with paramedic firefighters.

“We are putting the right units on the right calls, so we are not over-triaging the calls,” Boos said.

EMTs have less education and training, and are paid less. The positions are temporary and can last up to three years. They have been used on calls where only basic life support is required, freeing up the more highly trained paramedics to be available for more serious calls.

The program was funded by a levy passed in 2014 that taxes 20 cents per $1,000 of the assessed value of a homeowner’s property. Under the levy, a home assessed at $250,000 pays $50 a year.

The levy has added about $3 million to the department’s $23 million budget.

If the department wants to keep staffing and response times where they are after the levy expires, it could try to shuffle money around, but might have to cut positions, Boos said. To ensure that current standards are maintained, the department is planning to ask voters to renew the five-year levy in the May 2018 election.

The department will make its pitch to the Bend City Council and the Rural Fire Protection Board in mid-November to see if the entities will approve the levy proposal making the ballot in May. The department will be armed with results of a telephone survey it conducted in October. The survey polled 400 residents in Bend and 200 in the rural fire district — which is around the city and outside of city limits, but still served by Bend Fire — and asked them about support for the levy.

Boos said initial results have not yet been analyzed, but that overall, the citizens in the district have been supportive of the department.

“It seems like the community supports us a ton in everything we do,” Boos said. “That makes you feel really good.”

Boos said in addition to shorter response times, the EMT program has been beneficial to people looking to break into the competitive field of firefighting.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” Boos said. “It’s also allowed us to be more diversified in our work force.”

Boos said the position can help someone break into the medical field as well. As a result of the jobs created by the levy, Boos said the department has had more women apply than it has had for paramedic firefighter positions, who then pursue a job in the medical field.

“The majority of the people that get into the program get paid full-time jobs by the end of their three years,” Boos said, likening it to a paid internship.

When asked how optimistic he was, Boos said the community has always backed the department, and that the department has worked hard to show the community that it can be responsible with tax dollars.

“The citizens of Bend are No. 1 — that’s what we care about,” Boos said. “We care about having a livable community and providing a service where people feel safe and comfortable. We just want to be able to provide the best service we can and be creative in doing that.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0376, awieber@bendbulletin.com

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