March 14, 2006 in City

Diminished resources can be cause for alarm

By The Spokesman-Review

Police lead 7 from burning house

» Fire officials say five police officers probably saved the lives of six people and several children when a fire broke out at a house early Monday.

» Spokane officer Zachary Dahle saw smoke coming from the roof of a 2½-story structure at 1923 W. Broadway, called the fire department about 2 a.m., then started pounding on doors to wake people up.

» Officers Paul Gorman, Derek Bishop, Frank Erhart, Scott Haney and Dahle went into the burning house, which had been converted into apartments, and found three people asleep in an upstairs unit, police spokesman Cpl. Tom Lee said. That apartment was filled with smoke and heat was melting paint off the walls. The home did not have working smoke detectors.

» In all, the officers escorted six adults and several children from two apartments, Lee said. A corner of the home burst into flames right after everyone got out.

» Red Cross has provided temporary accommodations for the displaced residents, officials said.

» “If these officers had not gone in and woke up the residents,” said police Sgt. Tom Hendren, “it’s possible some might not have gotten out.”

With three-quarters of Spokane Fire Department resources fighting a fire on the Gonzaga University campus early Monday, what did that mean for the rest of the city?

Had things stayed quiet elsewhere, it would have made little difference. But about two hours after the GU fire erupted, the Fire Department received three other emergency calls nearly simultaneously.

About 2:10 a.m., the city’s remaining fire crews were called out. Two crews went to a medical emergency, another crew went to an automatic alarm and additional crews were called to a house fire, said Assistant Chief Brian Schaeffer.

The city called Spokane Valley Fire Department for help, officials said. Valley firefighters stationed seven miles away arrived at the house fire, a 2½-story home converted into apartments, about 10 minutes later. Spokane County Fire District No. 9 also responded to the house fire at 1923 W. Broadway.

Spokane Fire Department has an agreement with neighboring fire districts to assist when needed.

What happened early Monday was an “anomaly,” Schaeffer said. “It’s not normal for us to have simultaneous major events, but they are frequent enough to be concerning.

“We have no depth, there’s no redundancy,” he added. “We can staff a single incident well. We can staff a second major incident pretty well, but any additional incidents would represent a deficiency in our system.”

The Spokane Fire Department doesn’t have as many nearby cities as Western Washington to draw resources from, Schaeffer said. “We have great neighboring districts, but they are stretched thin, too, and their first priority is the area they cover. We are an island here in Eastern Washington.”

Spokane has 56 firefighters per shift to cover a population of 200,000-plus, officials said. Tacoma has 74 per shift to protect about the same number of people.

If Tacoma had a fire comparable to Monday’s GU fire, it would probably leave about eight fire crews to cover the city, said Gary Steinhoff, deputy chief of the emergency operations bureau at the Tacoma Fire Department.

“If any call goes to a second or third alarm, it’s taxing on the system,” Steinhoff added.

“It’s incredibly frustrating,” said Schaeffer, the Spokane assistant chief. “I think we try and adapt as much as we can with our environment. We can’t create money. We can’t change the city’s budget. We just have to come up with alternative ways to make Spokane safe.”

Some of those alternatives include supplemental agreements with neighboring fire districts – for example, if there’s a fire in certain areas of town, fire crews from the city and a county district respond, Schaeffer explained.

Also, he said, the department adapts technology as much as possible, “including mobile data systems that show us where every piece of equipment is located within the city and which fire crew is closest.”

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