Fire Study: Prioritizing Calls,Coordinating Dispatch Will Reduce Stress on Fire Department

The long-awaited, top-to-bottom Fire Department Study by the Matrix Company pretty much said what most intelligent observers have thought for years – the Fire Department should stop sending fire trucks to minor car accidents, to people at home with small medical issues and to a number of other “routine” 9-1-1 calls for service.

Instead of continuing that practice, the report suggested the Fire Department streamline itself with a new dispatch system operated by Cataldo Ambulance whereby all calls are ranked in terms of seriousness and Fire crews are only sent to the most serious calls.

In other words, the department should respond to real emergencies and not just everyday accidents.

This major suggestion – which could completely remake the way the Chelsea Fire Department (CFD) currently operates – was debuted on Tuesday when all stakeholders in the study met for an initial public discussion with the City Council’s Subcommittee on Conference. The Study suggested one “highest” priority recommendation, 15 “high” priority recommendations, and 10 medium priority recommendations – some of which were bright spots for the department, some of which were policy discussions for City Hall, and some of which were not-so-positive comments about the CFD’s record keeping procedures.

First and foremost, however, was the idea of reducing the number of calls for service – especially for Engine 2. According to statistics from 2011, Engine 2 (based out of the Downtown Fire Station) responded to 4,269 calls. That was more than 39 percent of all calls to the department, and 22 percent higher than the generally-accepted recommended maximum of 3,500 responses per year. It has been suggested that Engine 2 is one of the busiest engine companies in the entire United States.

Sounds like a perfect argument for more staffing and more engine companies.

Think again.

The study went on to point out that 65 percent of the calls (2,778) for Engine 2 were for medical related calls, and not for fire-related services. The Matrix study made a very serious suggestion that the Department work with dispatch to, essentially, triage calls according to their seriousness and stand down on calls that are not true emergencies.

“Currently, the CFD responds to all medical calls regardless of the severity of the call,” read the report. “Recently, the dispatch center implemented Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) procedures utilizing Cataldo Ambulance Service…to determine the priority of EMS calls. While the transition to EMD has not been smooth, it is a critical first step in developing a tiered EMS response system where Fire Department units are only dispatched on high priority, life threatening, calls for service. The project team recommends this as a first step in reducing the unit threshold levels and possibly delaying the need to add additional units or build additional stations.”

An alternate recommendation suggested that, if this did not reduce the numbers of calls to Engine 2 (and other crews), then there should be an implementation of new staffing levels and the construction of a new fire station on the developing waterfront area. That, though, could hopefully be avoided by smarter allocations of CFD resources and mutual aid services. Without that, the City would be looking at the addition of nearly $1 million in new salaries and benefits per year to bolster staffing.

“Unit staffing needs to continue to be evaluated in a regional context,” read the report. “Because the magnitude of risk in Chelsea exceeds any reasonably affordable municipal approach, it will always rely on neighboring fire departments for major events. The current approach to emergency response consistently results in one or more units typically being committed to a call for service, mostly EMS related. As a result, the Department should continue to evaluate improving mutual and automatic aid to ensure an appropriate response force can be deployed in a timely fashion before considering adjusting engine and trucking company staffing levels. The cost of increasing staffing…would cost an estimated $966,438 per year…, which can be avoided if the improvements to EMD and tiered response plans are implemented.”

If the numbers of responses cannot be reduced by streamlining responses, the recommendation is to add an EMS squad with a minimum of two firefighters daily at a cost of more than $600,000 a year in salaries and benefits. If that doesn’t work, the  final recommendation is to add staff to engines with a minimum of four persons and to ladder companies with a minimum of three persons at a cost of $966,438 per year – and additionally consider the construction of a new fire station on the waterfront.

Another major recommendation in the report was to reconsider the use and cost of required Fire Details – a controversial subject over the last few years according to local businesses and condo associations.

About two years ago, Spencer Lofts residents were infuriated to receive a $25,000 bill for a fire detail that lasted several days at their nearly brand-new building.

The study revealed that Fire Detail billings since 2007 have increased by 56 percent – going from $277,683 in 2007 to $432,540 in 2011.

Additionally, an anonymous opinion poll distributed by the Chelsea Chamber of Commerce (with 23 responses) showed 31 percent of those surveyed did not believe that fire details were well-scheduled and coordinated with property owners.

“The department should review the current policy of requiring details to ensure that they only occur when an immediate threat to life or threat of significant property loss exists,” read the report. “The department should fully explain to homeowners and businesses when the detail will begin, corrective action required and cost, immediately upon determining that a detail is required.”

It was also added that, “It is important to note the City pays firefighters for working the details and bills the businesses directly. Often these invoices are unpaid, which results in details costing the City of Chelsea.”

Other “high” priority recommendations included:

•Eliminating the practice allowed by contract to approve vacation time to the point that minimum staffing levels are in place, thus requiring overtime pay if there is a vacation on the shift or someone calls in sick.

•Taking middle-managers in the department out of the firefighters union and including them in a new, mid-manager’s union or separate bargaining unit.

•CFD is not training with first-due mutual aid partners on an annual basis, and it is recommended they start doing that.

•Department has not conducted a full risk assessment of the entire community to clearly document risks by occupancy type. It is recommended the department do this full risk assessment of potential emergencies.

•The condition of the existing fire stations is in need of professional evaluation, and the City needs to conduct a $50,000 study to develop a long-term plan for rehabilitating or replacing the existing stations.

•Department and City need to work to maintain an in-house mechanic for internal apparatus and equipment maintenance.

•Training certificates are not in place, and the department needs to make sure all personnel conducting trainings are certified as instructors.

Now that the document is in the hands of the City Council, and has been made available to the public, the hard part of deciding what to implement and how to implement it will now come to bear.

Union officials, City Manager Jay Ash and some City Councillors are already at odds over a long-standing union contract issue, and cutting down the Fire Department’s response calls (which are essentially its justification for continued and increased staffing levels) will be no easy task.

That will be a discussion, Ash has said in the past, that will be a difficult discussion and a difficult decision. He has long said that the study will not be controversial, but implementing its findings will likely be controversial.

Earlier this month, Capistran told the Record the union is evaluating the study. On Wednesday, he indicated that the Fire Union would make comment next week after the study comes out of committee.

“I just received a copy of the Matrix study last week from City Manger Jay Ash,” Capistran said on April 3rd. “I am currently reviewing it with members of my Executive Board and have no further comment related to the study at this time.”

The full, 116-page Matrix Fire Study is available for review on the City’s website.

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