Fire officials must answer burning questions

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How much are you willing to pay to protect your home, your property, your family from fire?

When you add in emergency medical services that highly trained firefighters often provide, how does that impact your willingness to part with a little more cash?

Are you willing to pay, say, $100 for every call your local fire department responds to? How about $1,000? What’s reasonable? What’s real?

The questions are relevant in light of last month’s failure of two fire district requests to bring in more taxpayer revenue via levies. Both Timberlake and Northern Lakes earned a majority of votes, but both fell short of the two-thirds supermajority required in Idaho. Both are now back at the drawing board, figuring out how to handle the challenges that come with aging equipment and increasing population.

It’s a predicament that begs at least two questions. One, are fire districts asking for too much? And two, is the supermajority requirement unfair?

The fire districts themselves are engaged in self-analysis exercises right now. Northern Lakes might assemble an advisory committee that will give officials constructive feedback — a good idea if officials do a little talking and a lot of listening. The fact that Northern Lakes fell short by literally a handful of votes has to be frustrating — but encouraging. Strong support exists. It just needs to get a wee bit stronger.

As for the supermajority requirement, Idaho probably won’t lower it — nor should it. The threshold must remain high because these levies, once approved, become permanent. To raise property taxes without an expiration date should require overwhelming support, forcing the taxing districts to make water-tight arguments.

Now, back to the matter of what’s reasonable and what’s real. Fire departments have varying challenges, some depending largely on the size of their coverage area. There are also expectation variations. If you live in a city, for example, your expectation of prompt service in an emergency are likely higher than they would be for a rural resident. That probably means more personnel and maybe even better equipment.

While it’s only one measure, and certainly not comprehensive in terms of response time, quality of outcome and so on, The Press did a little math. We took the budget of the four main fire departments serving our region and divided it by the number of calls each agency responded to. It’s interesting to compare but probably not wise to draw concrete conclusions from so sparse an indicator. Here’s what we found:

Northern Lakes averages about $1,250 per call.

Timberlake averages about $1,290 per call.

Coeur d’Alene Fire Department, with a 2018 budget of $9.7 million, responded to 8,726 calls last year. That would come out to about $1,115 per call.

Kootenai County Fire and Rescue, with a 2018-19 budget of $11.04 million, responded to 6,213 calls last year. That comes out to about $1,775 per call. Their calls are very likely to go up this year, which would lower the per-call cost.

Here’s something we think everyone can agree on. If your house is on fire, if you’re in a serious car accident, if your spouse is on the kitchen floor stricken by a heart attack or stroke, you’d gladly pay whatever they’re charging.

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