Findings of a recent study into the present and future needs of the Rochester Fire Department are evidence that the city must develop a new model for responding to fires, as well as staffing and funding for the department.
Among the committee's findings were that the fire department, currently an on-call volunteer model, rarely meets response time standards as prescribed by the National Fire Protection agency. In 2017, they only met the response time of nine minutes for a structure fire once. For a city of the stature and size of Rochester, and with the growth it is experiencing, that is simply unacceptable.
The department has experienced a significant increase in all calls for service. As stated by the committee, overall calls for service rose 39 percent from 2010 to 2017; fire calls rose 33 percent; and EMS transports rose 66 percent. The department's paid on-call firefighters have grown from 18 in 1980 to 38 in 2018, evidence of the growth of the city. Save for the chief, all are volunteers, many who live a distance from the station. When there is a fire, they have to drive to the fire station, change and then get to the fire. A further problem the department is consistently experiencing is the loss of young, trained firefighters to full-time work at other departments, leaving Rochester to once again pay the costs of training volunteers.
Those challenges and others led the committee to determine the "paid on-call staffing and operation model will not be viable or sustainable in the future."
While the fire department has been lagging behind the national standard for fire incident responses, the department's emergency medical service response is within the standard because the department keeps at least one EMS responder on duty at all times, at the fire station.
We strongly agree with the fire committee in its recommendation to council that it's more than time to add additional full-time positions to the Rochester Fire Department. That can be done through a combination of full-time and part-time positions to ensure that an EMS technician and an adequate number of firefighters are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Rochester Fire Department Chief John Cieslik said keeping the station manned at all times would require two additional positions, which would equate to six new hires, including three part-time staff and three full-time staff. He estimated the cost to be about $600,000 over the existing budget of about $1.4 million annually. The fire station was built to house additional staff, including sleeping and living quarters.
While some council members talked of shared services with neighboring departments – a good idea for partnering for large fires and emergencies – Rochester should not depend on other communities for a basic need, which fire services are. It is more than time for Rochester to step up and fund a paid fire department, or a mix of part full-time firefighters and on-call volunteers. We applaud Chief Cieslik for pushing for the study, as well as for a better staffing model for his department. We anticipate the administration's support will help guide council to continue to protect its residents.