March 3, 2011 in Washington Voices

Spokane Valley Fire Department studies responses

Agency seeks accreditation, appraisal of efforts
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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The average response time for the Spokane Valley Fire Department has been improving and the department hopes to drop it by 30 more seconds within the next five years. Getting there, however, might involve building two new fire stations and getting funding for that in the current economic climate can be an iffy proposition.

Long-range plans call for a new Station 11 on Barker Road at Euclid, just north of the Spokane River, said Capt. Jeff Bordwell. There are also plans to move Station 3 in Liberty Lake, which is currently on Harvard Road north of Interstate 90. Most of the population is south of the freeway and the department already owns land there for a future station. But funding the two stations would require voters to approve a levy lid lift to pay for it. “This is obviously not the time to go forth with that,” Bordwell said.

The department is also looking into expanding automatic aid agreements in place with neighboring fire districts to help response times on calls on Spokane Valley Fire’s borders and has added firefighters with advanced life support training to a station that previously didn’t have it.

Spokane Valley Fire has been analyzing call response time data from 2007, 2008 and 2009 and created baseline times for each type of response with lights and sirens – basic life support, advanced life support or a fire call.

While the department overall is seeing shrinking call response times and is meeting all state and federal guidelines, in 2010 some individual stations were over the baseline for certain types of calls or in certain areas. That can happen because a crew is in training, on another call or the engine was in the shop for repairs, said Capt. Pat Schaffer.

Even the location of some stations work against them. Station 8 on Wilbur Road has the double whammy of being next to the railroad tracks plus being hemmed in on Montgomery Avenue, where crews cannot go east to connect to Pines Road.

Station 1 on East Sprague Avenue across from University City is on a one-way section of Sprague, which slows response times to the east. “Traffic does affect our runs,” Bordwell said.

But several stations were struggling with items beyond their control. The Barker Bridge was shut down for two years before reopening last spring. The area north of the river is in the zone of Station 5 on Sullivan Road and crews are frequently called to a mobile home park between the river and Euclid Avenue on Barker. If the Station 5 crew was delayed, an engine from the Greenacres Station could be sent, but the bridge construction cut off that option. A crew from the Liberty Lake station would have to respond instead and had much farther to travel. “Just getting there was a problem,” Schaffer said.

The new Greenacres Station was under construction for much of 2010, and for several months crews responded from Station 7, which is on Evergreen Road south of Sprague. “Obviously their response times were vastly increased,” Schaffer said. But the flip side was that Station 7 response times were well below the baseline because it had a second crew in the station to help.

Several stations had trouble meeting the baseline time for advanced life support calls because not all stations have paramedics who have the required training. “We don’t have ALS people on each specific truck,” Schaffer said. “We had six apparatus last year with paramedics. This year we have seven.”

The main difference between advanced life support and basic life support staff is those with ALS training are allowed to administer pharmaceutical drugs. Firefighters with basic life support training are limited to providing aspirin, oxygen, glucose or an epi pen.

The department prepared maps with the city divided up into grids of one sixteenth of a mile. Each grid included the number of ALS, BLS or fire calls received there in the past year. Each grid box is color coded to indicate how often crews met the baseline response time. Doing it that way helps show at the glance where the problems are, Bordwell said. It allows the department to identify the weak areas and plan how to improve in those areas. “We wanted the most honest answers we could get,” he said.

The department is not spending so much time and effort on such a detailed analysis just for fun. The department is in the application process for becoming accredited through the Center for Public Safety Excellence and the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. It’s something the department has been working on for several years. As part of the process, departments are required to analyze three years of call data, called the standard of cover, and make plans for improvement.

Fire department accreditation has only been around since 1995 and is something that only 200 agencies around the world have done, said Chief Mike Thompson. Only six agencies in Western Washington have done it, including the Tacoma Fire Department, but no department in Eastern Washington has become accredited.

“The benefit for us is to help give us an idea of how well we’re doing in certain programs,” said Thompson.

Agencies often start programs but never do an in depth analysis to see how well they’re working. For example, last year the department started a swift-water rescue team, which has yet to be examined in depth in terms of effectiveness.

So far, each program in the department has been written up in detail as to what it does and how well it’s doing. An inspection team from the accreditation agencies is scheduled to spend nearly a week on site doing interviews and analyzing data in the spring. They will look at mutual aid agreements, examine the new ambulance agreement and check response time information. After the visit the team will recommend to its board whether the department should be accredited. Then there will be annual compliance reports to write and the department’s plan for improvement must be updated every five years.

“This is not something you just do and put up on the shelf,” Thompson said.

There is no financial benefit for the department to be accredited, but it forces an honest self-assessment of how things are going and what can be improved on. “We’d like to say we’re absolutely perfect in everything we do, but we know that’s not the case,” Thompson said.

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