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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Firefighters union says budget cuts impair responses

It’s a game of what-ifs.

If Spokane city officials hadn’t eliminated a fire engine company on the South Hill last year, would firefighters have doused recent fires there sooner?

If the Spokane Fire Department puts more emphasis on medical response over firefighting, would more lives be saved, since medical calls account for the vast majority of responses?

If a team of three firefighters had been driving an engine – not a medical truck – when a blaze was reported, could it have arrived soon enough to prevent a fast-moving garage fire from entering the home?

Spokane’s firefighters union says recent fires on the South Hill have exposed the consequences of reduced service at Station No. 9, located at 18th Avenue and Bernard Street.

Beginning this year, the station’s engine company was eliminated and replaced with a rescue truck that carries limited firefighting equipment. In addition, long-standing policy was changed so some fire crews respond to medical emergencies in an ambulance-like truck or SUV, leaving their firetrucks behind.

Fire department leaders and Spokane’s mayor stress that they still usually meet response-time goals at Station No. 9 and departmentwide, and that sending smaller vehicles to medical emergencies may improve service and help maintain the department’s expensive firetrucks. They say they don’t like cuts to service and are allocating resources as best they can.

Firefighters counter that with the changes, it’s only a matter of time until the weakened service or change in policy will result in someone’s death or severe injury.

The shift toward using medical trucks to respond to medical calls has been challenged by the Spokane Firefighters Union and will be considered by the state Public Employment Relations Commission next week.

Rescue truck first on scene

Three times in three days, starting July 13, a rescue truck was the first vehicle on scene at South Hill fires.

The two-person unit provides oxygen to firefighters at big fires, but it has no ladders and only limited firefighting equipment. State law requires at least three firefighters to enter burning buildings, so the crew can’t even launch a rescue if one is needed.

The rescue truck, however, is the only crew at Station No. 9 as a result of budget cuts.

At one of those same three fires, one of the fire companies was delayed because the crew was in a medical truck when the fire was reported and had to go back to the station and get an engine. By the time they arrived on scene at the garage fire, the blaze was just starting to enter the home, firefighters say.

The city fire union, Local 29 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, argues that its members are more likely to be placed in more dangerous situations because fire service is spread thin.

“It’s Russian roulette with public safety,” said Don Waller, union president.

Some City Council members say while they don’t like the reduction in force, they didn’t have much of a choice given the labor contract approved last year that added $1.3 million to the city budget, mostly as a result of increased medical benefit costs. Others argue that the Engine 9 company could have been saved if the council last year had taken the 1 percent annual tax increase it usually accepts.

Spokane Mayor David Condon is standing by the decision to eliminate the engine from Station No. 9 as well as the change in responding to medical calls.

“He’s comfortable, definitely, with the response times with the limited number of fires that we get in that area,” said city spokesman Brian Coddington.

Seconds can ‘matter critically’

Spokane’s goal is that one fire crew will respond to a fire within 8 minutes 30 seconds, 90 percent of the time. That goal is similar to Spokane Valley’s but is significantly slower than the standard recommended by the National Fire Protection Association. The city strives to have 16 firefighters on scene within 11 minutes, 90 percent of the time.

Gary Honold, the National Fire Protection Association’s regional director for the Northwest, said a minute or even seconds can “matter critically” in fighting a fire. As a rule of thumb, fire doubles in size every minute.

Quick response matters even more because homes are filled with plastics and other materials that accelerate fires faster. Changes in the contents of homes over the past 35 years have cut the time it takes a room to flashover – when the temperature has risen to a point where the room ignites nearly instantly – in half, Honold said.

Spokane Fire Chief Bobby Williams said there’s always a chance that the closest fire station can’t respond to a call for help because they already are at another call, or perhaps are participating in training exercises. But he acknowledges that risk increased at least slightly as a result of the elimination of the engine at Station No. 9.

Given the budget, he said, the best place to remove a fire engine was from Station No. 9, because it has a low volume of structure fires – 13 in 2011 and eight in 2012 in the station’s immediate area of service. There have been seven this year, five of them since June. Considering all 18 Spokane Fire Department crews that saw significant service in 2011, only three of them were dispatched fewer times than Engine 9. Williams said Engine 9 was eliminated rather than stations with fewer calls because it is close to other stations that can pick up the slack.

“We had a reduction we had to make. We felt and still believe that that had the least impact on service delivery,” Williams said. “While I or any other manager would like to reduce risk 100 percent of the time, it’s virtually impossible.”

Majority of calls are medical

Until recently, Spokane Fire Department leaders argued that it was better to respond to all calls with firetrucks. That way, engine companies could go to the next call without returning to the station to swap trucks. The change to using smaller vehicles for emergency medical service calls reversed that policy.

Williams said the change improves the mobility of crews heading to medical calls and reduces the use of aging firetrucks. The benefits outweigh the risks, he said. And with EMS calls continuing to increase while fire calls remain level, it’s harder to argue that firetrucks should respond to medical calls, he said. Medical calls account for more than 80 percent of the department’s responses.

Spokane City Councilman Steve Salvatori is leading a mayoral task force to examine fire service. Recommendations should be finalized early next month, he said.

Salvatori, who stressed that he wasn’t speaking for the committee, said he’s not sold on the use of small vehicles when it leaves a company without a firetruck. He said he prefers hiring about a dozen firefighters to restore engine service at Station No. 9 and to create a few one- or two-person crews that would operate in small vehicles during peak hours.

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