Vancouver Fire Department takes the heat (with video)

Firefighters confront tough budget, staffing issues and seismically unsafe stations

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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photo Vancouver firefighters, from left, Capt. Gregg Roberts, Isaac Eldred and firefighter-paramedic Mark Bennett work with an AMR paramedic at the scene of a March 1 motor vehicle accident on Interstate 5.

(/The Columbian)

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Did you know?

• In Washington, fire departments receive a score from the state Surveying and Rating Bureau that determines how much people pay for commercial and residential insurance. Departments are rated on a scale of 1 (the best) to 10 (the worst), and are scored based on the following factors: water supply; department staffing, equipment and response times; communication equipment; and fire safety control, which includes inspections, public education and code enforcement. In 2002, Vancouver was downgraded from a 3 to a 4. The Vancouver City Council has expressed concern that if the department drops below a 5, residents and business owners will see an increase in insurance rates.

• In a 2012 survey of 403 households, emergency medical and fire response were named among the five most important city services, along with emergency police response, quality drinking water and garbage and recycling services. Those same services also received the highest levels of satisfaction, and residents were less willing to accept reductions in services than they were in a 2010 survey. More than half of the respondents said they were "not willing at all" to accept reduced levels of emergency medical and fire services, ranking those even ahead of police services. People also said they weren't willing to pay additional taxes for those services.

• Total staffing in the Vancouver Fire Department has dropped from 221 in 2008 to 198 in 2013; the department's staffing levels fall below the national average of .48 firefighters on duty per 1,000 residents. Vancouver's ratio is .16 per 1,000, below Tacoma, Spokane and Bellevue. The hardest hit in Vancouver have been those who are additionally trained as paramedics; the number of firefighter-paramedics and captain-paramedics has dropped from 77 to 63 since 2008. The department has also cut down on overtime shifts. The city spent $1.7 million on fire department overtime in 2008, and $1.4 million last year.

The Vancouver Fire Department, responsible for providing emergency medical services for more than half of Clark County's population, has been experiencing pains of its own: a growing deficit, a shrinking workforce and stations that would not withstand a major earthquake.

The condition seems serious but more money to ease the predicament is unlikely.

If this was about any other department, save for police, the easiest cure would be more cuts.

But the Vancouver City Council has named public safety as its No. 1 priority, which reflects public sentiment.

The fire department has been cut as part of overall city reductions, but police and fire have been relatively spared compared to other departments providing mandated services, such as parks. City officials know further reductions in fire services won't just lead to slower response times, they'll potentially impact residential and commercial fire insurance rates, and councilors have not expressed interest in reducing services.

"Our expectation in this city is that we have a certain level of readiness for both fire and EMS calls," said City Manager Eric Holmes. "The goal isn't to lay people off or hire people on. The goal is to provide the service … and we're trying to figure out how to slow costs but achieve the same results."

The city's contract with the firefighters expires at the end of this year, so negotiations will be starting by this summer.

City Councilor Bart Hansen, the most vocal supporter of fire services, said he won't be asking firefighters to take a pay cut.

"I think people like to get upset about how much police and firefighters earn," Hansen said. "But we ask a lot of our public safety officers."

When someone dials 911, "we as a society are asking these public safety employees to step in and deal with it for us," Hansen said.

In the upcoming labor negotiations, Hansen said, "we will do everything we can to hold the line."

In 2009, the firefighters' union gave up a 4 percent cost-of-living raise, and didn't receive a raise the next two years. They did receive a 3.7 percent cost-of-living increase spread over 2012 and this year. During that time, eligible firefighters did receive 5 percent step increases, which are spaced at five-year intervals.

Firefighters have switched over to their own health insurance plan, which has saved the city $675,000 in the past two years, said firefighter Mark Johnston, president of IAFF Local 452.

"There's a tremendous deficit coming up," Johnston said. "We're going to work (with the city) and see what we can do."

Restructuring

The Vancouver Fire Department provides non-ambulance, emergency medical response. Among career (non-volunteer) fire departments nationwide, 97 percent provide emergency medical services, said Lori Moore-Merrell, assistant to the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters in Washington, D.C. Moore-Merrell, who has a doctorate degree in public health policy, said the departments provide varying levels of emergency medical response, from basic EMT services to advanced life support, which Vancouver provides.

In Vancouver, medical incidents account for about 75 percent of the department's calls. Fires account for 2 percent of the calls, but take up more than 10 percent of firefighters' time because of the complexity of the calls. Of the 172 firefighters and captains who provide round-the-clock coverage from 10 stations, 63 are trained as paramedics, meaning they can do invasive procedures on patients such as inserting an IV or intubation.

At a minimum, firefighters are trained as emergency medical technicians.

On April 1, the department will be starting a three-month test project: A firefighter and a firefighter-paramedic in a sport-utility vehicle will be dispatched to lower-level medical calls instead of a three-person crew in an engine.

The SUVs aren't new; they are the ones used by Deputy Fire Chief Dan Olson and Operations Chief Steve Eldred.

The department stopped responding to the least-serious calls (most level 5 and all level 6 calls) in 2008, letting ambulances take calls about people who have chest pain but normal breathing, or a headache but normal breathing, or allergies but no difficulty swallowing, for example.

As part of the pilot project, an SUV would respond to level 3 and 4 calls, such as a diabetic acting abnormally, a person older than age 35 who has chest pain but who's breathing normally or a person threatening to commit suicide.

An engine would still respond to level 1 and 2 medical calls, such as cardiac arrests or continuous seizures.

The move marks a first step in restructuring a department that, over the next five years, has a projected deficit of $4.6 million.

The SUV test will save an estimated $50,000, but it wasn't meant to be a cost-cutting move.

Fuel costs will drop, as it costs $1.34 a mile to drive an SUV compared to $7.47 a mile for an engine, but fuel accounts for less than 1 percent of the department's budget.

It will look good to the public, as people often ask why an engine gets dispatched for a diabetic with high blood sugar.

But the main reason for doing it is to keep engines and ladder trucks free for fire calls and high-priority medical calls.

Fire Chief Joe Molina said if a neighboring station responds to a call about a life-or-death situation because the closest station's at a lower-priority call, it adds up to 21/2 minutes to response time.

That's unacceptable, he said, and the department needs to prioritize accordingly.

"We have always treated every call as an emergency," he said.

Deputy Chief Olson said it marks a major shift change in staffing. The two two-person teams in SUVs will not be assigned to a station, but instead will, like ambulances, roam the service area.

Those who staff the SUVs will be asked to change schedules. Firefighters and captains work 24 hours on, 48 hours off, but SUV staffers will be asked to work four 10-hour shifts a week, all during the day when calls for medical help are highest.

During those peak hours, the number of on-duty firefighters and firefighter-paramedics will increase from 40 to 44.

Increasing costs

While the city tries making dents in the department's deficit where it can, the No. 1 reason costs have been outpacing revenues will be dealt with behind closed doors.

In the past 10 years, the fire department's budget has gone from $20 million to $31.6 million, said Lloyd Tyler, the city's chief financial officer.

Like with most city departments, personnel costs are the single biggest factor driving the increase. Salaries and benefits account for 73 percent of the fire department's budget now, compared to 77 percent a decade ago. That percentage varies slightly from year to year, Tyler said, but averages 75 percent.

Out of the city's general fund budget, the fire department accounts for 24 percent, up from 20 percent a decade ago, Tyler said.

City projections show this year's $1.65 million fire services deficit hitting $4.69 million in 2018, part of a citywide projected deficit of $10 million; the balance of the projected deficit involves mostly police costs, Holmes said.

But a fire services analysis completed last year by a team of community volunteers was not a budget-cutting exercise, he said.

Image neighborhood resident Mary Elkin was a member of the community resource team. The analysis, done with technical help from city administrators, fire department leaders and representatives from the firefighters' union, examined ways to stabilize the department's budget without gutting services.

The committee did not recommend cutting firefighters, as Vancouver's staffing level already falls below the national average.

Elkin started coming to city council meetings to express concern over the cost-cutting decision to close Station 6, which the city did on Dec. 31, 2010. The station reopened in November 2011, after the city accepted a $2.3 million federal grant to pay for 13 positions. The grant expires at the end of this year, and Clark County Fire District 5, which contracts with the city of Vancouver for fire services, agreed to pay for the 13 positions in 2014. Money hasn't been identified to pay for the positions in 2015.

Salaries

Elkin said discussing cuts to personnel costs wasn't allowed, as it was made clear any suggestion would have to honor union contracts. Not that she thinks cutting salaries are the answer, citing the physical demands of the job and long-term health problems that can develop because of stress and exposure to heat. The leading cause of on-duty death for firefighters is heart attacks, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Washington's firefighters earn an average wage of $63,040, and are the third-highest paid behind counterparts in California (average wage of $71,030) and New Jersey ($70,160), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Firefighters in New York and Nevada round out the top five. Among top-paying metro areas, the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett area ranks seventh nationwide; the Tacoma area ranks 10th. The Vancouver Fire Department's IAFF Local 452 uses departments in Bellevue, Tacoma and Spokane, among others, as comparable departments in collective bargaining.

Firefighters start at $59,436 in Vancouver and top out -- not including overtime -- at $81,132. Firefighter-paramedics start at $66,948 and earn up to $88,644.

Johnston, president of the firefighters' union, said he did have concerns about what would happen to unions in Washington if Republican Rob McKenna had won in November -- the union endorsed and campaigned for Democrat Jay Inslee -- but feels secure that under Inslee's administration Washington won't become a "right-to-work" state.

Inslee has consistently protected the rights of workers to collectively bargain, said his spokeswoman, Jaime Smith.

Unsafe buildings

Beyond just biennial budget woes, the department has $27 million in capital needs. Seven of the city's 10 fire stations need minor to major seismic upgrades, and four of those stations -- 1, 2, 3 and 6 -- need to be rebuilt, Chief Molina said.

As noted in a September analysis of the city's fire services, the stations are likely to fail in a major earthquake.

"The irony is that in a major earthquake the department, as a designated first responder, is a critical part of an emergency response effort. If some stations collapse around them, the ability of the city's firefighters to perform that function is clearly made more difficult if not impossible," the analysis said.

The city doesn't have the money in its capital budget to upgrade and rebuild stations, so a $27 million bond would have to go out to a public vote. That won't happen this year, Holmes said.

When it does come time to rebuild stations, they won't necessarily be in the same locations, and the city would predict population growth over the next 50 to 75 years. One recommendation from the community group was combining Stations 1 and 2 on the city's west side.

Holmes said the city council hasn't been willing to raise taxes to pay for fire services.

For now, the city, which operates on a biennial budget, will take the problem two years at a time.

Holmes, like Hansen and Johnston, expressed optimism about the upcoming union contract negotiations.

Hansen said the firefighters' union has led the way for other city collective bargaining units to look at ways to control costs.

Johnston said union members know the city's revenue limitations. Property tax increases are capped at 1 percent annually, lower than the rate of inflation. The city lacks a strong industrial tax base. Residents shop in Oregon to avoid sales tax, which takes away potential city revenues.

While some may not like paying more money for fire services, Johnston said, they have to think of them as insurance.

"What you are buying is capacity," Johnston said. "People are going to figure out eventually that you get what you pay for."

Stephanie Rice: 360-735-4508 or stephanie.rice@columbian.com