Almost 75 Percent of Worcester Fire Dept. Calls Not Fire Related
Monday, September 16, 2013
This sort of startling scene plays itself out more almost 27,000 times a year throughout Worcester. In fact, according to a Worcester Fire Department report obtained by GoLocalWorcester, three-quarters of the nearly 29,000 incidents reported to the Worcester Fire Department during 2012 were not fire-related.
Only about 1,600 of the WFD calls – or 6 percent – were fire-related. (The amount does not include false alarms, which WFD reports to be another10 percent worth of calls.) The vast bulk of the calls – more than 21,000, or 94 percent - involved rescue and emergency-medical incidents.
This has resulted in the WFD sending bulky, expensive, fuel-guzzling firetrucks careening through the city’s winding, often narrow streets, to respond to non-fire emergencies. And, the WFD does so at the same time that UMass Memorial Medical Center dispatches much smaller, much less costly and much more fuel-efficient ambulances to the same scenes.
A 2006 report by the Research Bureau, titled Dial 911: Whose Call Is It, Anyway? and using city Budget Office figures, estimated that if only 10 percent of the total miles covered by WFD vehicles was for first-responder calls, the annual vehicle cost would be almost $98,000. And if the rate was 66 percent, the cost would exceed $640,000.
Worcester's costly first-responder system
There’s a reason for the costly first-responder duplication. For many years, ever since UMass Memorial took over the former Worcester City Hospital in 1991, the non-profit, quasi-public medical center has provided ambulance service to Worcester at no charge. Until then, City Hospital’s ambulances responded to non-fire emergency calls and the WFD answered fire calls.
Worcester’s two-pronged response to such calls is fairly unique among American cities, due to the presence of a major, state-affiliated medical center within its borders. Lying at the heart of the thorny matter, is a long-simmering debate over how to resolve the duplicative practice without harming the fire department of a major Bay State city in which fire-related reports have been rising in recent years.
Minutes are very crucial
The first organized 911 ambulance service in Worcester was operated by the city’s Police Department in the 1960s and early ‘70s. In 1977, City Hospital initiated Worcester’s first emergency medical service, providing only one or two basic life -support ambulances per shift to cover the entire city.
By the mid-‘80s, following the closure of City Hospital, Worcester’s EMS staff had transitioned to all-intermediate or paramedic under the auspices of UMass Memorial - and the service has remained advanced-life-support to this day. UMass Memorial EMS is contracted to provide emergency-ambulance service - free of charge - to the City of Worcester.
UMass Memorial - the region’s only Level I American College of Surgeons-verified trauma center, also staffs UMass Memorial Lifeflight, which is operated by Air Methods Corp. and staffed by UMass Memorial. And UMass Memorial provides mutual-aid support to Greater Worcester communities, including Worcester.
Deputy Chief Geoffrey Gardell, spokesman for the WFD, calls the arrangement with UMass Memorial “very beneficial situation for the [city] residents and the people that come to the city of Worcester to work, to have the quality of emergency medical care that UMass [Memorial] supplies.” But he defends the use of Worcester firetrucks to make non-fire emergency calls because those vehicles, unlike UMass Memorial ambulances, are strategically located throughout the city – enabling a quicker response time.
He figures UMass Memorial ambulances arrive on the scene “about to four to five minutes after us, on average, depending on what part of the city, obviously. As you know in any cardiac incident, minutes are very crucial.”
Worcester city officials have not considered adding ambulances to its fire stations, Gardell acknowledges, because UMass Memorial is already providing ambulance service to the city at no charge. “The cost would be quite a bit,” he says, “to put a few ambulances in place and strategically locate them. Why would the city do that, financially?”
Nor does Gardell think equipping additional Worcester fire stations with UMass Memorial ambulances would free up firetrucks to respond more quickly to fires calls. WFD has been downsized over the past four years, he observes, decommissioning three front-line engine companies - employing a total of nearly 50 people - and consolidating them with other fire stations.
In 1997, the WFD had about 480 firefighters and responded to almost 500 building fires. Fifteen years later, in 2012, the department had about 80 fewer firefighters and answered around 300 more building fires.
“Through attrition, we downsized the department,” Gardell says. “Between the chief of the department and the city manager, we feel we have a working number right now that’s both feasible and economical for the residents of the city of Worcester.”
Roberta Schaefer, president and CEO of the Research Bureau, tells GoLocalWorcester that WFD staff-cutting through attrition was the right way to go. “The approach addressed budget problems,” she says. “At the same time, because of the changes in the functions of the Fire Department, it made sense to reduce the size of the [firefighting staff] because they’re not doing things that they were, before.” She acknowledges that the collapse of the national economy, five years ago, helped City Hall to expedite those reductions.
The Great Recession, Schaefer reports, also enabled City Hall to get UMass Memorial ambulances garaged in a small handful of Worcester firehouses. And that has allowed those stations to no longer need to dispatch firetrucks on first-responder calls.
Whether that can be done at all other Worcester firehouses, Schaefer says, will depend on the results of the latest round of contract negotiations between City Hall and the firefighters union. The most recent three-year pact- which avoided the planned layoffs and the demotions of 38 firefighters and the closure of two fire companies and one fire station - expired this June 30.
Immigrants and cooking fires
Fire calls may account for only a small portion of all calls made to fire departments in Worcester and all other American cities - due to vastly improved fire-prevention and -education efforts in recent decades. If anything, U.S. fire departments may need to be rebrand themselves – as “all-hazards,” “critical” or life-safety” departments, for example - because they now deal mostly with first-responder and hazardous-materials calls.
However, fires still do erupt in cities both large and small across America. And Worcester is certainly among them in that regard.
The City Manager’s Office pointed GoLocalWorcester to Firehouse magazine’s annual ranking of the nation’s Fire Department Busiest Engine. In the latest ranking, for 2012, Worcester’s Engine 13 placed No. 66 among 152 U.S. engine companies, with 3,492 total runs last year. Boston’s Engine 21 (No. 54, with 3665 total calls), Cambridge’s Engine 2 (No. 89, 3,009), Lowell’s Engine 2 (No. 108, 2,596), Somerville’s Engine 3 (No. 111, 2,555), Quincy’s Engine 1 (No. 122, 2,460) and Pittsfield’s Engine 3 (No. 135, 2,274) were the only other Bay State engine companies to make the “Busiest Engine” list.
The Firehouse magazine ranking does not separate fire-related from non-fire-related calls. However, according to WFD’s “Worcester Fires in 2012” report, the city’s total fire calls had risen 10 percent, from about 1,450 in 2008 to almost 1,600 in 2012. Of the more than 800 building fires that were reported in 2012 in Worcester, about 700, or 86 percent, were in residential properties. And those fires were an increase of 70, or 11 percent, from the approximately 630 residential-property fires reported in 2011.
Unsafe cooking practices were the leading cause of those reported residential-building fires, accounting for 77 percent of such fire reports that year, according to the WFD’s 2012 report. Heating-related fires were a distant second, at 6 percent. Arson, electrical and smoking were tied at No. 3, at 2 percent each. Clothes dryers, indoor rubbish fires and juvenile firesetting were tied at No. 4, at 1 percent each. And candles ranked No. 5, at 0.1 percent.
Schaefer, of the Research Bureau, is surprised by the WFD figures showing increases in the number of both building and residential-properties fires between 2008 and 2012. In fact, the Research Bureau, in 2012, presented one of its annual Thomas F. Green Awards, which recognizes outstanding public servants, to Annemarie Pickett, a WFD lieutenant whose responsibility is fire-prevention education.
After briefly reviewing the WFD report, Schaefer speculates on the cause of the spike in fires, with cooking-related fires being the No. 1 cause. “The population [of Worcester] has increased,” she says. “And whom has it increased with? It’s immigrants.”
Meanwhile, as Worcester fire officials like to point out, when a fire happens in your home or business, you expect a rapid response. But what about when a non-fire call is answered with a $400,000 piece of fire apparatus? Isn’t that too much of a response?
“Not if it’s your mother,” the WFD’s Gardell responds.
That said, Gardell recalls that the WFD had in recent years been “working feverishly” to obtain ambulances for the fire department. “Where the city gets [ambulance service] for free from UMass [Memorial],” he adds, “it’s a moot point.”
In agreement, is John Dwyer, president of Local 1009 of the International Association of Firefighters, the labor union that represents WFD firefighters. Would Local 1009 have any qualms about City Hall and UMass Memorial working out a deal that puts UMass Memorial ambulances in WFD stations in a way that isn’t a budget-buster for either party? “I’m not going to talk in hypotheticals, at all,” he answers.
Has City Hall ever approached Local 1009 about such an idea? “Not to my knowledge,” responds Dwyer, who’s been union president for the past three years, a union officer for the past 13 years, and a firefighter for the past 26 years.
Dwyer does say, though, that UMass Memorial is unlikely to want to divert any more of its ambulances from delivering emergency patients to its two Worcester hospital campuses. “Why would they be interested in it when they’re not going to get the same number of [emergency] patients? I don’t know,” he says. “That’s the dynamics of the economy of the hospital.”
UMass Memorial has yet to respond to repeated GoLocalWorcester phone and e-mail requests for an interview.
Exceeding recommended response time
The WFD’s response times have been rising in recent years, according to a 2012 Research Bureau report, Benchmarking Public Safety in Worcester. The WFD’s own 2012 report shows that the city’s firefighters responded in four minutes or less last year to only about 150, or 9 percent, of the nearly 1,600 total reported fires. For almost 330 other total reported fires, or 21 percent, the response time was much longer – ranging from 20 to 24 minutes.
The National Fire Protection Association recommends a four-minute response time for 90 percent of all incidents. This is in addition to a NFPA-recommended turnout time of about 60 seconds – the time needed to get a crew in a firetruck and the vehicle moving forward.
Ken Willette, division manager of the Quincy-based NFPA’s Public Fire Protection Division, says the association does not take a position on the staffing levels and response times of fire departments. However, the retired fire chief, who led fire departments in both Wilbraham and Concord, does point to NFPA Standard 1710, which establishes basic response times and basic staffing levels
Under Standard 1710, when a fire station receives a fire-emergency call, it should be able to acknowledge the alarm and get a response vehicle moving to the scene within 80 seconds. Once the vehicle’s wheels start turning, NFPA recommend four minutes or less of travel time. For a non-fire emergency, NFPA recommends up to 60 seconds of turnout time – because there’s no need to don firefighting gear – up to another four minutes for the first unit to arrive at the scene, and as much as four more minutes for an advanced life-support vehicle to show up.
“Firefighting is not a zero-sum game,” Willette tells GoLocalWorcester. “Not every incident will require one engine company with four firefighters. Some instances are going to require multiple fire companies and multiple firefighters. And you need to be able to staff a reasonable level of resources so that when you have those events, the pubic still expects the fire department to … control that fire and protect property.
The small amount of WFD responses in four minutes or less during 2012, the Research Bureau report notes, “could be the result of the 2007 Redeployment Plan for the Fire Department, which closed two engine companies and transferred their firefighters to other stations. The WFD did caution at the time that this reorganization could lead to longer response times.”
“As the WFD’s staffing levels have declined in recent years, its workload has increased – although, primarily in the area of first-responder/rescue services,” the 2012 Research Bureau report continues. “In recent years, the total number of incidents and the number of first-responder calls have tended to run parallel, while the number of structure fires has remained flat.”
GoLocalWorcester asked Local 1009’s Dwyer why city residents aren’t up in arms over the Fire Department cuts made by City Hall in recent years. “I don’t know why the public hasn’t raised hell with the city manager,” he responds. “That’s up to the public to decide what they should raise hell about.”
The WFD’s Gardell has yet to respond to GoLocalWorcester follow-up inquiries. The specific questions were:
- What is the status of plans to locate additional UMass Memorial ambulances at Worcester fire stations, and are there any significant obstacles, including the fire union?
- What would be the annual fire-staffing and fire-equipment cost-savings for the City of Worcester with UMass Memorial ambulances at all Worcester fire stations?
- Does the City of Worcester need to conduct an active, dynamic public-awareness campaign to let citizens know that: More than two-thirds of the calls made by the Worcester Fire Department are not fire-related; and, the mission and role of fire departments has changed significantly in recent decades because effective code and fire enforcement has resulted in far fewer fires?
Last Friday, a spokeswoman for the City Manager’s Office reported that Gardell won’t be available again until this Tuesday - the day after this article’s scheduled posting - and that City Manager Michael O’Brien was unavailable for comment.
Cannot be solved in the short term
Perhaps if Worcester fire trucks were freed up from responding to the same non-fire emergency calls that UMass Memorial’s ambulances answer, the WFD’s average fire-response time would be a lot lower. And the department would be freed up to handle other, increasingly important responsibilities such as hazardous-material calls. In short, today’s fire department in America does much more than battle blazes.
“That’s what the fire department has evolved to, because the public has requested it,” NFPA’s Willette says.” They have said, ‘We need to be protected from these [other, non-fire] threats. How can we do this?’ Some of these threats are so serious that you can’t ask civilian volunteers to provider that mission. You need employees who are properly trained, properly supervised and willing to accept this mission – much like a solider does in the army.”
Willette commends public-safety reformers and news media telling their stories for bringing issues such as this one to the public’s attention for consideration. But he cautions that these problems cannot be solved in the short term. “Hopefully, somebody will lay out a path forward that’s more than just a quick conversation and then a quick decision. And that starts with the collection of data and the analysis of data - what is that telling us and what is the strategy.”
“Based on what I’ve heard across the country, that doesn’t happen in but maybe around 50 percent of the instances,” Willette says. “In [the other] 50 percent of the instances, it’s found that there are quick decisions and quick votes and action taken. They then find out that they may be exposing themselves to greater risk, handing off more of their responsibilities to neighboring communities [under mutual-aid pacts], and [feeling other] impacts they hadn’t projected. So it really requires thoughtful analysis and community discussion.”
Steven Jones-D'Agostino is chief pilot of Best Rate of Climb: Marketing, Public Relations, Social Media and Radio Production. Follow him on Twitter @SteveRDAgostino.
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