Do fewer firetrucks mean more danger?

Chief says cutting trucks, reassigning firefighters improves service; union disagrees

The city's fire engines -- first responders to fires and medical emergencies -- have too few firefighters aboard, increasing risks to firefighters and citizens alike, according to national safety standards.

Minneapolis Fire Chief Rocco Forte and the firefighters union agree it's a problem. They disagree on the solution.

Forte has proposed eliminating two of the least-used ladder trucks -- one at Station 27, 5410 Nicollet Ave., and one at Station 15 in Northeast. He would reassign those firefighters to existing fire engines so each one had a four-person crew. Today, most engines carry three-person crews.

At a fire, a three-person crew means the person running the nozzle -- standing amid the smoke and confusion -- loses back-up help, putting the firefighter in danger, Forte and firefighters said.

At a serious medical emergency like a heart attack, a three-person crew means firefighters could lose precious seconds trying to do multiple tasks: helping the victim breath, giving chest compressions, running the defibrillator and gathering medical information from friends and relatives.

The union said it wants four people to an engine. It also has voted against closing the two ladder trucks. It says eliminating the ladders would reduce fire and medical response times in Southwest and other parts of the city.

Forte's change would reduce the number of fire rigs in the city from 29 to 27, a 7 percent reduction. The only station in the Southwest area with a traditional ladder truck would be Station 8, 2749 Blasidell Ave. His plan is to replace the two rigs at Station 27 with a single hybrid truck, with both ladders and hoses.

Forte said he could mothball the two ladder trucks, make the system more efficient and keep response times at the current average of 3 minutes, 38 seconds.

Tom Thornberg, president of Firefighters Local 82, said it's impossible to take rigs out of service and not affect response times.

"We need the people. We also need the rigs," he said. "To get the coverage, you need the rigs."

The union is working with its international organization to model how the chief's plan would affect response times, Thornberg said. The report is still in process, but a preliminary version said Southwest would lack adequate coverage.

The issue hits close to home for Tom Davison of Windom, a firefighter on disability who lives a few blocks from Station 27. He had a heart attack at home a year ago and got a quick response.

"You are opening up a huge hole in the Southwest side of the city -- where we pay some of the biggest taxes -- leaving it unprotected," he said of the plan to eliminate Station 27's ladder truck. "How many people do you have to kill before you staff it at the level you need to staff it? There is a price for everything."

Forte said fully staffing the engines and keeping the ladder trucks would cost $2.3 million more than his proposed 2003 budget. His budget is $44 million, up 6 percent from 2002. Another $2.3 million would nearly double his requested increase.

If he had the money to keep all the ladder trucks, Forte said he would still remove the ladder truck from Station 27. He would reassign it to Station 17, 330 E. 38th St., because it has higher service demands. (Station 17 often serves Southwest neighborhoods.) The Station 27 ladder had the second fewest runs in the city last year, according a fire department's report.

"Everyone agrees to four on a rig," Forte said. "The question is, how many rigs can you afford to put four on and what is the best utilization of those people?"

Four to a truck

In 2001, the National Fire Protection Agency issued standards that say engines need four firefighters, Thornberg said.

The city's 19 fire stations each have a fire engine -- smaller trucks that carry hoses, water and a pump. They are the first out of the station on emergency medical calls, and Forte said 90 percent of the time they have three-person crews.

Nine stations like Station 27 are "double houses" with both an engine and a ladder. The ladders, larger than engines, do search- and-rescue and fire ventilation and have extraction equipment for auto accidents. All ladders have a four-person crew.

The ladder trucks also do EMS runs if the engine is out on a call. This is Davison's concern. Had the engine been on call when he had his heart attack, Station 27 had the ladder truck on standby to respond. Forte's plan would eliminate the backup, he said.

Thornberg called it an insurance policy.

"If you are like me, you have never had a fire in your house, never had a tornado tear it down or had a tree fall on it," he said. "But I still pay my insurance every month.

"Fire departments are the same thing. If you live in Southwest, do you want to take a risk of your family being saved?"

Forte said he closed Station 10 downtown without affecting response times. This current proposal would do the same through better efficiency.

"The key to this is that you get more firefighters at every single emergency, medical or fire," he said.

Better staffing on the engines would get more firefighters to an emergency faster. It would get engines back into service sooner, leaving fewer gaps in coverage.

Fewer fires, more heart attacks

The chief's proposal reflects the changing role of firefighters.

Stricter building codes, sprinkler systems, early-detection systems like smoke alarms and better inspections have reduced the number of working fires, Forte said.

In 1970, firefighters responded to roughly 2,300 working fires. This year, Forte projects the city will have 300 working fires, a drop of nearly 90 percent.

In 1970, firefighters made 4,400 EMS runs, according to the department's annual report that year. In 2001, they made more than 24,500 EMS runs, a growth of more than 450 percent.

Forte said medical calls have increased because the population is getting older and has more medical problems. Immigration has also contributed, he said. Immigrants do not have health insurance and tend to use 911 for health care.

The shift away from fire calls means the department has less demand for ladder trucks, Forte said. From Nov. 1, 2001 to Nov. 1, 2002, the city's nine firetrucks used their aerial ladders only 52 times. By August 2002, the ladder truck at Station 27 had used its aerial ladder once all year.

Quints: More options

Forte has proposed replacing the engine and ladder at Station 27 with a single "Quint," a hybrid truck that does all five functions of a ladder and an engine. They cost $600,000 to $800,000 each.

If the City Council approves Forte's plan, the city would buy two Quints, one for Station 27 and one for a station in Northeast. Firefighters would begin training on them in the fall and they would go into service at the start of 2004.

Thornberg said Quints can be an engine or a ladder -- not both at once. Replacing two rigs with a Quint would cause delays while other equipment shows up, he said.

Forte said Quints give firefighters more flexibility at an emergency. He also plans to change procedures so more to firefighters respond to fire calls.

"What have I got to lose by implementing it for a year and seeing if it works?" Forte said of the Quint plan. "If it doesn't, I can always go back."

Station 27's numbers

By Fire Department calculations, the ladder at Station 27 spent an average of 20 minutes a day responding to fires and six minutes a day responding to emergency medical calls.

In 2001, that ladder truck made 195 medical runs and 437 fire runs, according to the department's annual report. But Forte said in the vast majority of fire runs, the call is cancelled en route and the ladder returns to the station.

Eight times out of 10, the three firefighters on the engine go out and do emergency medical work "and the other four guys sit in the station," Forte said.

"There is about an average of probably two fires a month that they go to. What I am saying is that the Quint can handle those two fires a month."

Thornberg call that analysis "unfortunate."

"It is not like you have four guys sitting around doing nothing or playing checkers or cards or cribbage all day long and taking naps," he said. "They are busy."

Firefighters do training and community service, such as blood-pressure screenings, he said. They inspect buildings and familiarize themselves with the structures in case of future fires.

Forte agreed that firefighters did important work between calls. He said his plan would better use staff for emergencies and still allow that work to continue.

Ambulance aid

Forte is trying to get more Hennepin County ambulances in city fire stations to reduce response times. The quicker the ambulance arrives, the quicker firefighters are relieved and back in service.

Three Southside stations, including two in Southwest (Station 27 and Station 22, 3025 Market Plaza) now house county ambulances, Forte said.

The union said the city couldn't count on ambulances since the county runs them.

"If something happens in Minnetonka, and the Minnetonka ambulance is busy, they are going to send the ambulance out there," Thornberg said.

Forte agrees, but said the city is still better off with ambulances in the fire stations than without them. Further, if he could increase the number of stations with ambulances, the odds are good that at least some would be available at any one time for emergencies.

Forte also wants to put "automatic aid" in place with nearby communities, he said.

Automatic aid means whatever fire engine is closest to the emergency would respond -- regardless of the community, Forte said. Minneapolis is talking to St. Paul, Richfield, Edina, St. Louis Park and St. Anthony about such a plan.

"That would cut response time," Forte said. "We have to start to learn to share resources in our communities."