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  • Kevin Elliott

Rochester to explore fire department options

City administration will take until fall 2018 to mull staff and funding options for the Rochester Fire Department following a study in March that found the department is unable to meet response times prescribed by the National Fire Protection Association, city council determined at their meeting on Monday, April 23.

The finding was part of a report compiled by an ad-hoc committee tasked with assessing the department's current and future needs, and one of several challenges the department is facing. At the heart of the issue is the department's current staffing and operation model, which relies on paid, on-call firefighters to staff the department. Because firefighters are on-call, the department isn't staffed at the station with firefighters on a 24-hour basis, meaning firefighters respond to fire calls from their homes or other locations when they are on call. Firefighters must drive to the fire station, suit up and then drive appropriate fire apparatus to the location of the emergency, eating up valuable response time.

Rochester Fire Chief John Cieslik said while the time it takes firefighters to respond from the fire station are in line with national standards, total response times are lagging in areas farthest from the station due to the time it takes firefighters to get to the station from the initial time of the call. The lag, he said, is due to the fact that many of the firefighters don't live and/or work in the city, as was often the case in the past.

The committee determined the current structure isn't sustainable into the future, as response times will continue to lag and become longer. To address the issue, the committee presented alternative staffing models, ultimately suggesting the addition of bringing on three full-time positions and three new part-time firefighter positions, for a total of nine additional firefighters to man the station at all times.

Cieslik said the option would likely cost an additional $600,000 annually.

A public hearing on the fire study was held on Monday, April 23, during Rochester City Council's regular meeting. During the meeting, Rochester City Manager Blaine Wing said he and the chief would look into staffing and funding options and report back to council this fall, likely in September.

Some members of the public questioned how the proposed change would be funded, and whether the additional funds would come directly from the city's general fund or whether a new fire millage would need to be proposed.

Council members also voiced their opinions and some said they hoped the report didn't alarm residents.

"We don't want to make this a fear factor, because that's not the case," Rochester Mayor Pro Tem Kim Russell said, implying that overall response times in the city were adequate. She also stated she would like to see additional data regarding response times.

Councilman Dean Bevacqua said he believes the department could rely on additional mutual aid response from surrounding communities to improve response times, and that the longer times noted in the report were anomalies, rather than the standard.

Cieslik refuted those assertions, saying that response times are predetermined based on the location where firefighters live and work.

"What I would like for council to understand is that when we get a call for a fire and it takes us 15 minutes to get there, and you live up on Miner's Run, it's going to take us 15 minutes to get there," Cieslik said. "I can't make it in 11. Can't make it in seven. It's going to be at least 15 minutes, regardless of whether we have city or association employees. The issue has to do with where the people are coming from and where they have to go."

Committee member Terry Crockett said assurances that response times overall are adequate aren't true, and that such statements are attempts to play to the audience, rather than a realistic look at the issue.

Rochester Mayor Rob Ray said the city can't rely on mutual aid alone to improve response times, as doing that would be asking surrounding communities to meet a public safety responsibility that falls upon the city of Rochester.

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