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  • Kevin Elliott

Study recommends fire department changes

The Rochester Fire Department doesn't routinely meet response time standards for structure fires as prescribed by the National Fire Protection Association, one of several challenges facing the department, according to members of an ad-hoc fire committee that was formed to assess the current and future needs of the department.

The committee's report was presented on Monday, March 12, to Rochester City Council members, who scheduled an April 23 public hearing to further discuss options and recommendations included in the committee's assessment.

Rochester Fire Chief John Cieslik in October asked city council members to approve forming the study committee to identify the department's successes and challenges, and how best to address the city's future needs for fire and emergency medical services in the face of increasing development. Members of the committee who presented the report on Monday ultimately determined that the department's current staffing and operating model won't be viable or sustainable in the future.

Cieslik said the National Fire Protection Association sets a generally accepted standard for volunteer fire departments at nine minutes for structure fire calls. Response time is measured from when dispatchers notify first responders to when at least six staff, including one fire engine, one ladder truck and one support vehicle, arrive at the scene. Of the four significant structure fires in 2017, the department met the standard once. Those that took longer than nine minutes did so by about two to four minutes.

Cieslik said response times to medical calls and other service that don't require at least six staff are under nine minutes.

The inability to meet the national standard isn't uncommon. Cieslik said many paid on-call volunteer departments, such as that operated by the Rochester Fire Department, have trouble meeting the standard.

According to the NFPA's 2010 Standard, volunteer departments in suburban areas with populations of 500 to 1,000 people per square mile should have a minimum of 10 staff responding within 10 minutes in 80 percent of fires. Urban areas with more than 1,000 people per square mile — Rochester is estimated to have more than 3,000 people per square mile — should have 15 staff responding within 9 minutes, 90 percent of the time. Rural areas, with less than 500 people per square mile should have six staff responding within 14 minutes 80 percent of the time, according to the NFPA's 2010 standards.

The NFPA's standard is based on response to a low-hazard occupancy such as a 2,000 square-foot, two-story, single-family home without a basement.

Terry Crockett, a resident member of the committee who presented the report's findings to city council on Monday, said there are several factors impacting response times, but they can be grouped into two categories: A, the amount of time it takes from when firefighters are notified of an emergency to when they arrive at the fire station; and B, the amount of time it takes to get from the fire station to the location of the emergency.

As a paid, on-call, volunteer department, the fire chief is the only full-time position, with the rest of fire and EMS service provided by paid, on-call staff. As a matter of practice, the department has one EMS/firefighter on duty at all times, which responds with an ambulance. The chief also responds to calls as appropriate. However, fire calls are answered by volunteer, on-call firefighters who receive pay for their volunteer work.

Crockett said on-call firefighters are notified when they are needed for an emergency, drive to the the station, then drive from the station to the fire or emergency. The department also receives mutual aid from neighboring fire departments when available.

As calls for service have risen over the past decade, so have the number of paid, on-call firefighters. Overall calls for service rose 39 percent from 2010 to 2017, from 1,226 to 1,858, which included a 33 percent spike in fire calls; 66 percent increase in EMS calls; and 66 percent increase in EMS transports. Paid, on-call firefighters have increased from 18 in 1980 to 38 in 2018. However, the average distance the firefighter lives from the station has increased from about 1.5 miles to more than three miles, with the average drive time to the station being about five minutes at non-peak traffic times.

In addition to living farther from the station than in the past, Crockett said firefighters are trending younger, with the Rochester Fire Department facing competition from other departments in the region who are hiring full-time firefighters, resulting in lower retention and higher turnover than previous times.

Adding to the list of challenges is the question of how the city will replace Cieslik, who is nearing retirement, and how the department's structure and challenges will affect the position in the future.

In terms of success, the Rochester Fire Department added Advanced Life Support (ALS) services to its EMS service about eight years ago, increasing services and transport abilities by medical responders. Cieslik also negotiated a non-emergency transport contract with Crittenton hospital to provide about $137,000 to the department's budget, bringing total revenues for emergency and non-emergency EMS transports to about $422,000 last year. The department's current budget is about $1.4 million, which comes from the city's general fund.

Overall, Crockett said the committee believes performance gaps will continue into the future and become worse if the department continues to operate as it currently does.

"The reason why we think the trend will worsen is the increasing demand for service, the paid on-call resident locations, retention and paid on-call skill maintenance and requirements, along with the competition for budget dollars and the city's growth," Crockett said. "The current RFD, paid on-call staffing and operation model will not be viable or sustainable in the future."

The committee's study presented four options for addressing the issues facing the department, including different variations of contracting fire and or emergency medical services and modifying the current structure to allow for some full-time and part-time employee positions, as well as a supplemental volunteer, paid on-call pool.

Of the four options, the committee recommends a hybrid staffing solution, which calls for staffing the fire station with six firefighters at all times, which would include three full-time and three part-time positions to be on duty 24/7. The staffing level would require a total of nine new full-time positions and nine new part-time positions. The department would also retain paid on-call volunteers. Cieslik estimated the recommended option would cost about $600,000 more a year than the existing budget.

The recommendation would allow for the department to increase response times to fire calls; retain EMS transport services and associated revenue; stabilize turnover and retention; develop and retain critical skills; facilitate planning for the chief's succession; and allow the city to maintain control over first responder services.

Cieslik also said the fire station is already equipped for additional staffing, as was planned for during the department's last renovation. As such, he said there wouldn't be any additional facilities or equipment costs in additional full- and part-time staffing.

Councilman Ben Giovanelli said retaining police and fire services is non-negotiable, and that outsourcing either of the services is out of the question.

"I'm glad to see this come forward. It's been a longtime in the making," he said, noting that he "ran for city council because of this discussion with the police department" and felt the city should maintain that service in-house "at all costs." He said he believes residents agree, as they also elected fellow council members who expressed the same opinion.

"Outsourcing, to me, is not an option," he said. "There is a value in having our own department, and as an accountant, I know there are always costs, but any savings wouldn't be worth the non-economic cost."

Giovanelli also said he hopes to receive more accurate and specific information on the cost of implementing the recommended option, and prefers to have those figures at a date in the near future. The council and chief could then look at potential funding options.

Councilman Dean Bevacqua said fire safety is paramount to the community, but asked the committee for more options that may be presented to volunteers to move closer to the station to help reduce response times. Councilwoman Ann Peterson recommended increasing compensation for volunteers sooner, rather than later. Mayor Pro Tem Kim Russell expressed her desire to have the committee explore the mutual aid component and how the city may better benefit from those agreements in the future.

Rochester City Manager Blaine Wing said the fire department discussion will also be part of the council's upcoming goals and objectives meetings.

"This will take some time for us to work through. Even if (council) chooses an option, it would take at least six months to go through and work through something," Wing said. "There is some emergency, but it's not immediate. You don't have to choose a specific option tonight. There are grants that may help to make an easier decision... This isn't at the point where it's urgent and we have to do something immediately. We are thoughtfully going through the data and plotting all the points, checking with neighboring communities and looking at possible options."

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