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Shawn Vestal: If ARUs aren’t going to be the answer, Spokane needs to find another one.

When Spokane city firefighters are called into action, it’s not usually for a fire.

Medical calls accounted for more than 81 percent of all Spokane Fire Department responses from 2010-14, according to department figures. More than 46 percent were for “non-life-threatening” calls, which have been increasing rapidly.

Fires accounted for 2 percent of calls.

This was the issue behind the city’s trial use of so-called Alternative Response Units – smaller, single-firefighter trucks employed on medical calls considered non-life-threatening. It was an attempt to manage the growing number of medical calls while preserving resources for the biggest emergencies.

A new evaluation by an Oregon-based consultant identified some strengths and weaknesses in the city’s trial ARU program, calling it an “innovative and effective” program that should be continued and improved.

“SFD is encouraged to continue this program and potentially expand it in the future to serve a larger area of the city,” concluded the report by Emergency Services Consulting International.

Ironically, that report arrived three days after the ARU program was sidelined by the City Council – which passed an “emergency” ordinance requiring two firefighters on ARUs, effectively leaving the program on the roadside. It’s unclear whether the city can find a way to get the program or something like it started again, while working with the council’s vote and the opposition of the firefighters union.

But one thing the new report and some current data from the fire department make clear is that there is a huge and growing number of fire department calls that do not require full crews and engines – what Chief Bobby Williams calls “sending the whole army.” If ARUs aren’t going to be Spokane’s answer, Spokane needs to find another one.

Council President Ben Stuckart and others raised concerns about the response times of the ARUs, arguing the slower-responding units were putting the public – as well as the lone firefighters – at risk. “Our level of service with the ARUs is worse,” he said.

Williams says the response times of the ARUs were slower by design, emphasizing that many calls for non-life-threatening issues do not require an emergency response.

“The slower response times were all planned,” he said. “It was planned by us, it was planned by the union, it was planned by our medical director.”

The consultant’s report addresses this question directly: “Though response time remains a key criterion for the placement of resources … research demonstrates that not all requests for service require rapid response.”

The new report was commissioned in May after the ARU program was suspended over concerns from the union about firefighter safety. The consultant reviewed data provided by the fire department, spoke to two firefighters who staffed the units, and considered the concerns expressed by the union.

The report recommended the city continue the program and work on ways to improve it. Here are some details from that report, as well as some figures on the ARU program provided by the fire department:

• According to the report, over the course of two trial periods in 2013 and 2014, Spokane’s use of smaller, single-firefighter trucks to handle non-emergency calls often wound up requiring backup. But in a majority of cases – 55 percent in one trial and 59 percent in the other – the ARUs managed the calls by themselves.

The report’s author suggests the department find ways to improve that figure and offered by comparison the ARU program in the Tualatin Valley near Portland, which needed backup for “no more than 18 percent” of incidents.

Spokane fire administrators said those figures don’t reflect the actual performance of the ARUs for a variety of reasons – including the fact that the department was fine-tuning when and how to use the units. Sometimes ARUs were called out along with other units to begin with, for example, and sometimes they were dispatched but called off later.

Williams said that in cases where the ARUs were dispatched alone, specifically to a non-life-threatening call and arrived on scene, they handled calls either alone or with only an ambulance in more than 87 percent of the cases.

• The report suggested that Spokane re-evaluate which incidents it sent ARUs to – something the department was planning to do before the program was sidelined. In particular, so-called “man down” incidents – reports of unconscious or unresponsive people – were problematic for single-firefighter units.

It also recommended having dispatchers spend more time with callers for medical incidents to determine if an ARU response, and the longer response time that comes with it, is warranted, and ramping up training for ARU personnel.

• Department dispatch records clearly show the recent rise in non-emergency calls. In 2010, there were more than 12,000 such calls, which accounted for 43 percent of all SFD dispatches. By 2014, this had risen to 16,841 calls, or 48 percent.

Fires represented a very small percentage of calls – small but crucial, of course. For every fire call – whether it’s a house ablaze or a brush fire – there are nearly 23 non-life-threatening medical calls.

The ARUs are parked for now. But that dynamic isn’t going away.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ spokesman.com. Follow him on twitter at @vestal13.