City concerned about fire response times

Council could set a goal of matching current performance

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

Published:

 

As the Vancouver City Council tries to stabilize the fire department's budget without gutting services, councilors focused their attention Monday on a different set of numbers.

Chief Joe Molina and Deputy Chief Dan Olson reported the department's response times. A 2005 state law requires fire departments to specify targeted response times, and then report annually on how well those targets are met. There's no minimum standard response time, Olson said, but each agency has to set goals.

The clock on the response time, Olson said, starts when a call is received at the firehouse and ends when the first unit arrives at the fire. He explained that the times reflect the 90th percentile — that is, 90 percent of calls have a response time equal to or faster than what's listed as the response time.

For priority 1 and 2 calls — fires and the most critical medical calls — the current response time is 7 minutes, 59 seconds. For priority 3 and 4 (less critical) calls, the response time is 10 minutes, 59 seconds.

For the priority 5 calls — an example would be a person who fell but isn't seriously injured — that would be an ambulance-only response and the response time is 15 minutes, 59 seconds.

Molina reiterated that the 90th percentile reflects the slow end, and said an average response time is about 5 minutes, 30 seconds.

Councilors said they want more information before they sign off on these times as the department's goal, including historic data and factors that influence response time.

"Just on their face, I don't like these numbers … they seem high to me," Councilor Jeanne Harris said.

Molina said he'll schedule another workshop to discuss response times before the council adopts them.

It will be just one of many decisions the council will make regarding the department.

Like other public service departments, the fire department has consistently seen costs outpace revenues. If it continues with business as usual, its projected deficit of $1.65 million this year will hit $4.69 million in 2018.

On April 1, Molina will start testing the use of smaller vehicles to respond to low-priority medical calls. Instead of dispatching a three-or-four-person crew in a fire engine to a priority 3 or 4 call, the department will send a firefighter-paramedic and a firefighter in a SUV.

It costs approximately $1.34 a mile to operate a SUV, compared to $7.47 a mile for a fire engine.

The city council also has a March 4 workshop scheduled on possibly redesigning its contract with Emergency Medical Services District 2, which contracts with American Medical Response to provide ambulance service. Molina said coordinating services better will be part of the ongoing effort to control costs.

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4548 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com.