FROM THE NEWS-LEDGER — APRIL 11, 2012 –
By Steve Marschke
Firefighter response times got slower in 2011 – apparently a product of fire department budget cuts.
The West Sacramento Fire Department reports its average response time for emergencies went from four minutes and 20 seconds in 2009 to four minutes and 13 seconds in 2010, followed by a 30-second increase in 2011 to four minutes, 43 seconds.
Local firefighters were not busier with emergencies in 2011 – they had fewer calls for fires, emergency medical services and other emergencies in 2011 than in 2010.
The department was, however, smaller in 2011.
“It boils down to what is an acceptable risk for the community,” Fire Chief Al Terrell told the News-Ledger. “Basically, due to the state of the economy, we’ve had to deploy a flexible employment staffing model. When we don’t have everyone at work, we’ve had to take an engine out of service. We’ve always had five engines and a truck in service, and now (some of the time) we have four engines and a truck.”
Terrell said that this happens when enough personnel aren’t available – due to vacations, extended training, or other reasons. Normally, Fire Station 45 on Lake Washington Boulevard in Southport has two fire companies. But when that’s not possible, it drops to one company – and the department finds itself spread thinner.
“About 80 percent of the time or more, we’re fully staffed,” said Terrell.
How dangerous is it to have response times slow to four minutes, 43 seconds?
“At this stage, I’m not really concerned – when it gets into the five-minute range, I’d be more concerned,” said Terrell. He explained a bit about why that is, and how a city decides to deploy fire stations:
“Medically speaking, if the brain goes without oxygen for six minutes, your brain is dead, even if your body is still alive,” said Terrell. “So in the fire industry, fire stations are strategically located to be able to arrive anywhere in their district in six minutes or under. We’ve strategically located our fire stations so we should arrive anywhere in our area within six minutes. Getting there in less than five minutes is doing really well.”
West Sacramento now has five stations, including the Lake Washington Boulevard station that usually holds two companies.
Has anyone died or been seriously injured because of the slower response time average?
“To my knowledge, that hasn’t happened,” said the chief. “If I had my way, I’d prefer to always have five engines and a truck – 30 seconds can make a difference.”
Terrell said that when he arrived to take over the department about four years ago, it had 71 personnel. Now, it has 66, a decrease that includes four uniformed firefighters.
“There are less people to fill in the gaps, so we have to flexibly staff,” said Terrell.
The cuts to the fire department are part of city-wide budget cuts approved by the city council in response to the recession and city budget troubles. Police and fire services were among the last departments to feel the weight of the city’s cuts.
The West Sacramento Fire Department reports it responded to 253 fires in 2011, down from 281 in 2009. It also responded to 4,905 emergency medical calls and 128 hazardous materials calls in 2011, in addition to 367 false alarms. In general, the department responded to more emergencies in 2010 than in either 2009 or 2011.
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