It’s 2012, but when most people think about the Fire Department, the pictures that come to mind are still red trucks and burning buildings. Maybe not Dalmatian puppies at the firehouse anymore, but the popular image is pretty dated.
Especially the burning building part. There’s an average of one fire a day in Ventura. While many are potentially catastrophic, most are either minor or quickly controlled with swift response.
In 2010, just 383 of the 11,497 calls for service were for fires. No, that’s not a typo. We still call it the “Fire” Department — and in an older city next to hillside wildlands we truly face major fire threats — but only 3.3% of the calls that come in involve actual fires. Nor are our crews spending a significant amount of time getting cats out of trees. No, the vast majority of calls (74.1% in fact) are for medical emergencies or medical rescues.
This has been a particularly busy period for our emergency responders (or “firefighters” as we still call them): extracting two passengers trapped in a crushed auto; fishing a man out of the water who attempted suicide by jumping off the pier; transporting a 300-pound patient with a fractured leg down three flights of stairs to an ambulance and, by the way, fighting a rash of arson fires in the Ventura river bottom.
As busy as they’ve been, there is an even bigger challenge hanging over the Ventura Fire Department: what happens at the end of the three-year Federal grant that’s providing $2.34 million (along with $1.2 million in local match) for 24-hour staffing at Station Four in east Ventura?
The Fire Department is gearing up to answer that question and provide recommendations to the City Council early next year, giving everyone plenty of time to solve this challenge before the funding is exhausted. But it won’t be easy and will require everyone to look outside their comfort zone.Of course the less you know, the easier it is to solve the problem. ‘Let’s organize volunteers like they do in Santa Paula’ is one suggestion. That’s doable, assuming there is broad community support for switching from our professional firefighter/paramedics who are cross trained to provide immediate advanced life support in many hazardous environments. That’s not clear from recent election results. ‘Let’s have the private ambulance company AMR respond to medical emergencies instead of dispatching a big fire truck’ is another seemingly sensible idea. The reality is our Firefighter/paramedics at our six stations are often the first responders and can immediately begin advanced life support care. The private ambulance paramedics are responsible for transporting patients to the hospital. Critical calls require firefighter/paramedics to assist during transport. Firefighter/paramedics can be available for additional emergencies once a patient is loaded and transported to the hospital on less critical incidents. ‘Transition to an 8-hour shift so we aren’t paying firefighters to sleep overnight at the station’ sounds appealing as well. But under Federal law, we actually only pay our firefighters for 40 hours of work out of their 56-hour-a-week schedule. Either we make do with less staffing on duty or have to pay more for the current 24-hour coverage. And while it’s true that there are fewer calls for service in the middle of the night, you never know when or where major or multiple emergencies will occur — which is a little like not paying for your car insurance at night because you don’t drive as much then.
If it was up to the Fire Department, they’d tell you that they run as efficiently as it is possible to do under the circumstances they face. They aren’t just saying that — they have the data to back that up, including a recent independent analysis done by Public Safety efficiency expert Byron Pipkin who delivered a report to City Council last year saying that current staffing is already at or below the minimum needed to ensure minimum 24-hour coverage. Not only has our Fire Department pursued innovative ways to stretch existing resources (including operating with one less Fire Station for 18 months), but it has been a pioneer in inter-agency “mutual aid” cooperation that maximizes efficiencies across city borders.
In the “new normal,” however, the status quo is unsustainable. While Ventura’s budget is balanced, we face converging long-range threats that can’t be ignored. Pension costs are going to rise faster than city revenues. Deferred investment in repairing our streets and vital public facilities can’t be put off indefinitely. And while nearly everyone agrees we should reduce government costs, in a diverse city like ours, there is no consensus about where those additional cuts should fall.
Just the ongoing expense of maintaining six stations requires an additional $1.2 million annually (currently coming from Federal stimulus funds and one-time City revenues.) So it is time to “think outside the box.”
These challenges don’t mean the problem is insoluble — only that it isn’t as easy as some people think. It will take the best thinking of both our public safety professionals and informed community participants. That’s the path charted by our City Council — to analyze the challenge, come up with alternative recommendations and test them against community expectations and ability to pay for those choices.
A citizen committee will be put together to assist in the effort. In part that’s due to the complexity of the issue — it’s not one that can be sorted out in a three-hour town hall gathering. In part that’s due to the need to have a cross-section of the community participate — which is not easy to achieve from a public hearing that might tend to draw the vocal and those with a particular agenda. But there will also be plenty of opportunity to solicit wider input as has been done on a variety of major issues in recent years. The goal is to hammer out a “Year Four Plan” that provides a sustainable and cost-effective plan for emergency response when the Federal funds (and our local match) runs out.
It would be comforting to go back to red trucks and Dalmatians. But in 2012, we must look past the “new normal” of inadequate local funding. We need to forge the “next normal” of sustainable funding, staffing and a forward-looking operations model to ensure a safe Ventura.