Vancouver fire house’s days numbered
Loss of Burton station ‘least worst option’ in face of budget woes, chief says
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
A day after city officials announced massive budget cuts that include the first layoffs to uniformed public safety officers in memory and the closure of a fire station, residents reacted with a mixture of shock, anger and even some apathy.
Vancouver officers’ fate up to Justice Department
Whether Vancouver lays off 11 or more than 20 police officers depends entirely on the federal Department of Justice.
The department last year was awarded a $2.58 million Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, grant to hire 10 new officers and pays their salaries for three years. But as the budget woes increased, Police Chief Cliff Cook realized that hiring more officers under the grant — which stipulates that Vancouver pay for all 10 officers for a fourth year — was risky.
Instead, on Monday the city council gave its approval to Cook to ask the Department of Justice to modify the grant so it can be used to prevent layoffs.
If they say yes, and give full funding, Vancouver will be able to avoid cutting as many as 10 cop positions, Cook said. A few other cities have successfully lobbied to modify their COPS grant to prevent public safety losses, although he said the Department of Justice has been reducing the grant by 25 percent to 50 percent of the original award. The grant also only covers entry-level salaries, meaning that the city would have to make up the pay difference for those spared officers that are in a higher pay grade.
The federal agency is set to do its annual review of Vancouver’s Police Department soon, and that will hopefully influence the city’s chances of getting its full $2.58 million.
“I believe we’re position well to have a positive review, but I can’t guarantee they’ll give us all 10,” he said.
Vancouver is allowed to lay off officers during the time it has the federal money; however, the grant requires the city council approve the action.
— Andrea Damewood
On the chopping block: 105 city employees, including 18 firefighter positions and at least 11 police jobs.
Fire Station 6 will close, leaving the area around Northeast 112th Avenue and Burton Road to be covered by surrounding engine companies — which will add 2.5 minutes to response times in the area and 30 seconds to all emergency calls in central Vancouver.
“I don’t think it’s right. If someone is having a heart attack, response times matter,” said Sue Bloom on Tuesday as she stood in the doorway of her blue house in the Kevanna neighborhood, which is covered by Station 6. “I think they could find other ways. We’ve never had to use (the fire station), but we depend on it.”
Fire Chief Don Bivins said that he’s at a place where “there are no good solutions.”
“It is huge,” he said. “When you’re having a significant medical emergency, or you’re having a fire burning, two-and-a-half extra minutes is an eternity. But this is truly the least worst option we have available to us living within our constrained resources.”
Station 6 covers an area of about 33,000 people and gets 2,330 emergency calls a year, putting it in the middle of the pack for service volume, he said. But unlike the station that gets the least amount of calls, Glenwood, Burton is centrally located, meaning that five other stations can pick up the load.
About 31 percent of Burton’s calls will go to the new Pacific Park station, which will mark a 54 percent increase in responses for that engine company. Another 15 percent will go to Vancouver Heights, adding another 10 percent to the call load at the city’s busiest station, which gets more than 4,000 calls a year.
Bivins also said that the closure of Station 6 is far from the city crying budgetary wolf.
“I would be shocked if it didn’t happen,” he said. “The people who I met with this morning to inform them they’re on the layoff list would be shocked. We are not going through this exercise for show.”
The impending loss of the Burton station comes on the heels of the elimination of Rescue Unit 3 out of the Vancouver Heights station in February. The department cut four positions through retirements and shelved the unit, which was used for more efficient responses to medical emergencies.
Though Station 6 will be gone, a new station, Pacific Park in east Vancouver, opened this year.
The fire chief said that the decision was made and bonds were sold to build the Pacific Park fire house and hire those firefighters nearly four years ago, well before the recession. When the economic crisis hit, they were two-thirds of the way done with the station.
“We ultimately did lose the staffing for that fire engine,” and so the city had to eliminate the medical rescue unit in Fisher’s Landing and move staff to form a full engine company in Pacific Park.
Another concern brought up by the city council on Monday is that the Burton station is also the closest to SEH America, one of Vancouver’s largest employers. Calls to the company were not returned Tuesday.
Bivins is charged with docking $1.8 million from his budget, which means three vacant positions and 15 filled jobs will go. He said the department may be able to avoid many actual layoffs through retirements, attrition and helping affected employees find jobs in other fire districts.
Three fire employees have already applied for Vancouver’s retirement incentives, which give $1,000 for every year of service and three months of health benefits, Bivins said.
But while that makes the employees whole, it won’t do much for the impact to public safety, he said. Both the fire and police departments have staffing ratios well below the federal and state standards.
Chad Farrell, 35, lives on Northeast 46th Street and said he’s not terribly concerned about losing the Burton station.
“I don’t have much of an opinion,” he said. “I guess two-and-a-half minutes is a big deal, but if my house is burnt, my house is burnt.”
But Kevanna resident Michael Hilbert, an industrial painter, said the cut was unacceptable. He’s got one year left before he can retire and move out of Vancouver, he said.
“I’m more concerned over why they would want to close a firehouse,” Hilbert said. “Why do a budget cut on … safety, which is the most important thing? Government really needs to run itself like a business.”
Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or firstname.lastname@example.org.