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Assessing local fire department services

Commercial developments and population increases fueling Rochester's economic development boom are bringing increased demands for fire and rescue services. That requires a thorough assessment of the city's fire department and all its capabilities, which wisely is being considered.

Housed in a single fire station southeast of downtown Rochester, the paid on-call force consists of about 45 volunteer firefighters who respond to emergency rescue and medical calls. In 2016, the department responded to 1,626 calls for service, including 11 fires; 1,275 EMS or rescue calls; and 31 calls involving hazardous conditions. That's an increase of more than 185 percent from just eight years ago. Yet, the department has just 18 more firefighters and one additional vehicle than it did in 2008.

As the multi-million dollar projects developers promise to bring hundreds of new jobs and homes, Rochester Fire Chief John Cieslik has requested an ad-hoc fire committee assess the needs of the fire department. The committee – which consists of the city manager, councilman Rob Ray, two residents and the chief – will look at fire and rescue operations, response times, the department’s structure, equipment and expectations from the community.

As the scope of the committee's study is still being determined, we recommend its members look at partnerships or sharing of equipment and services with neighboring communities as one possible option for increasing services. For instance, special use fire and rescue apparatus capable of reaching particularly tall structures or other locations can be, and should be, shared through interdepartmental agreements with other communities. Such agreements should go beyond mutual aid or assistance.

The committee must also consider the health of Rochester's aging population, as well as its structures.

As a historic community, the city has many older and aging homes and businesses that weren't built to today's fire code. Likewise, the number of senior residents in Rochester grew by 43 percent between 2008 and 2016. That number is expected to double by 2025. Considering that the majority of calls for service to the department are for medical services, the committee would be wise to look into how the city's changing demographics will play into the need for fire services.

Such considerations would wisely include data from a community impact study that is being developed by McKenna Associates that will look at the overall pressure in the city from proposed developments.

As a volunteer department, firefighters are paid a flat per hour fee when they are on duty, and paid as a contracted service to the city's Volunteer Fire Association. The committee also needs to look at the pros and cons of that system, which was supported by a $1.33 million budget in 2016.

While meeting new development challenges will undoubtedly require additional resources, a thorough and comprehensive study will ensure those resources are being used appropriately and efficiently.

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