Statistics released by the Bend Fire Department on Thursday showed that it took firefighters and medics longer to reach people who needed help in 2011 than in the previous four years.
The Fire Department responded to 80 percent of calls within 9 minutes, 59 seconds in 2011, up from 9 minutes, 22 seconds in 2010, according to the department. The remaining calls took longer.
Fire Chief Larry Huhn said those response times could continue to increase because unless the city finds a way to increase revenue to the Fire Department in the next two years, there will be layoffs.
“If we don't get extra funding above our base rate over these next two years, we're going to have to lay off up to half a dozen people," Huhn said in an interview this week. “We've lost 10 people through attrition over the last three years." The department has approximately 80 employees, Huhn said.
Huhn wrote in an email that the increase in response times “is what we predicted and this is what we have been stating to (the City) Council for the past several years." Concerns about a staffing shortage and increased response times also surfaced in a 2011 survey of city employees. Huhn said there was plenty of money for fire services during the real estate boom because of large increases in property values and taxes.
The city's Fire Department and the Deschutes County Rural Fire Protection District No. 2 plan to commission a study on whether it is feasible to combine the two entities, a move that could raise more money for fire services, Huhn said. In the meantime, the Fire Department has used data analysis to change how it responds to some calls in order to use its resources more efficiently.
City Councilor Jim Clinton said he hopes to find money in the next city budget to add both police and firefighters. “There are other options that I'm sure the new City Council will be looking at for public safety funding," Clinton said. For example, the new council could ask voters to approve a public safety tax levy or it could stop using money from the general fund to pay for planning and engineering employees and use the money instead for public safety.
“As the economy starts to pick up and development increases, that's another thing to look at because it was considered to be more of a short-term fix to the recession in the housing business or construction business," Clinton said.
In the 2011 city employee survey, one employee wrote that “The (Fire Department) plays a card shuffling game way too often with the resources available and has truely (sic) gotten lucky to cover calls." Another employee wrote that due to “our very poor staffing levels and constantly increasing calls for service we are not always available to respond to emergencies at the time of the calls as needed because we are already busy on other emergencies."
The city Fire Department and the rural district could spend up to about $40,000 on the consultant who will produce the feasibility study, Huhn said. He expects the study to be completed by early spring, when the city will begin assembling its next budget. Aside from raising more revenue, combining the rural district and city Fire Department could reduce expenses, Huhn said.
The department already began to change how it does business in order to control response times as much as possible with existing employees and equipment. “We've made some progress there and it's because of how we've changed our response patterns," Huhn said. “We've been working a lot with our data and trying to change our response patterns accordingly."
The department examined how it responded to various incidents, such as fire alarms. Typically, the department would send the same vehicles and personnel to respond to alarms as when a person calls to report a fire: three pumper trucks, a ladder truck, a medic unit and a command vehicle. However, Bend Fire Department statistics showed the fire alarms were frequently false, so the department now often sends only a single vehicle to respond to such alarms.
“There's a risk to that response, if it turns out to be something," Huhn said. “But we know, odds are it's a non-incident ... There's also a risk to sending all the resources to it, that another call will come in while there are no available units. This is the kind of thing a lot of departments are looking at — just having to rethink what we do and take a different approach to some things."
There are five fire stations combined in the Bend Fire Department and the rural fire district, and Huhn has proposed that if more money becomes available in the future, the city should build a sixth station at a central location on Third Street or 15th Street. “If we really wanted to make inroads to our response times, all of our data shows that core area between about 15th and Third, and then north and south about a similar distance, is really where we need to focus on," Huhn said. However, before building a new station, there is room to add crews at existing stations and that is probably what the department would do, Huhn said.
As for what is a good response time, Huhn said that is something the community must determine.
“Fire doubles in size every minute," Huhn said. “The community has to decide what is an acceptable level of risk. My biggest concern right now is not getting down to a good response time, it's that we have to stop this increase. Then we can talk about what does the community want in terms of a response time goal?"
— Reporter: 541-617-7829, email@example.com