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Thu, Oct. 17

Doing 'less with less': As Prescott browns-out fire stations, concerns begin to mount

Matt Hinshaw file photo

Matt Hinshaw file photo

About a month after the city began "browning-out," or temporarily closing, fire stations for lack of manpower, fire department officials say there's good news and bad news.

The good news: The brown-outs have had little effect on the majority of the service supplied by the fire department, mostly due to the use of a two-man rescue truck to fill in for the missing three-man fire engine.

The bad news: The Prescott Fire Department is perched on the edge of a precipice and one more budgetary blow could send it into the abyss.

Automatic aid and move-ups

To get a fuller understanding of the situation, you have to look at the big picture.

While there's a Prescott Fire Department, a Central Yavapai Fire District, a Chino Valley Fire District, and several smaller agencies serving their individual areas, the Prescott Regional Communications Center, which takes emergency calls and dispatches fire units, sees them all as one big family, and sends units accordingly.

Prescott Fire Division Chief Don Devendorf calls it "fluid" dispatching, where dispatchers send the closest units at any given time, no matter which they are. For example, if Prescott Engine 75, which is based at a station on Highway 69 across from the Gateway Mall, responds to a call for a motor vehicle crash and a firefighter rides with a patient in the ambulance to Yavapai Regional Medical Center's east campus, the engine follows along to pick him up.

If there's an emergency call while Engine 75 is leaving the hospital - which is, strictly speaking, in Central Yavapai Fire District's territory - the dispatchers can consider whether 75 is closest to that call, and if so, can send 75 instead of a CYFD crew.

The arrangement is called "automatic aid," and it's governed by written intergovernmental agreements.

The key element is found in this paragraph:

"While automatic aid does not ensure that a community will receive the exact same amount of assistance as it gives, it does mean that both parties will provide some assistance outside its jurisdictional boundaries and that the level of service delivered within the automatic aid will be comparable."

With automatic aid comes what are known as "move-ups," where a fire engine is asked to stage, or wait for a call, in a location between its station and another station when the second unit is tied up on a long call.

"If (CYFD's) Engine 50 gets committed down in Prescott Valley for any length of time, it's not uncommon to see our Engine 75 ... to be funneled to the Prescott Valley (area)," Prescott Fire Chief Dennis Light said, "And we haven't really changed much of that at all."

Light pointed out that Engine 73 from the airport routinely moves up to Chino Valley as well.

"Only a fire truck fights a structure fire"

There's no question that a brownout in the city is going to have an effect on us," Central Yavapai and Chino Valley fire districts' Fire Chief Scott Freitag said. "What we've been doing, through our partnership, is try to minimize that effect as much as possible.

"If Central Yavapai fills in every time there's a brownout, now it's on our taxpayers to fill in the gaps for Prescott," Freitag continued.

That's a factor of which the Prescott Fire Department is acutely aware.

"We have done everything in our power to not increase the burden on Central Yavapai ... by way of (changing) move-ups," Devendorf said. "When a Prescott fire station is browned-out for the day, we've done something internally - a rescue truck - to try to minimize the impact on that area as much as possible."

A brownout occurs when there are only two firefighters available to man a station instead of the three required to operate a fire engine.

The rescue unit is a heavy-duty pickup that carries a lot of gear and can do many of the tasks a fire engine can do, so for most calls, a browned-out station is still a resource.

But "two people and a rescue is not enough people and is the wrong equipment for fires," CYFD Chief of Support Services Scott Bliss said.

That means that if a rescue unit arrives first at a fire, the crew is hampered by an inability to do the job until an engine arrives.

"Only a fire truck fights a structure fire," Devendorf said. "If there's a fire in the first-due area of a browned-out station, there will be a significant delay to put water on that fire."

"Stressing the system"

The everyday operations of the Prescott-area fire agencies are already stretched to the limit.

"In the City of Prescott, we start at almost twice the recommended response time" as suggested by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), Devendorf said. The rule of thumb is four minutes, 59 seconds to arrive at a call, 90 percent of the time.

"Our 90 percent of the time, right now, is close to nine minutes," he said. "Our response times are going to get worse" with brownouts.

Using a rescue truck, which may require the manpower found on another engine, to accomplish a task "is not going to help with those response times," Devendorf said.

"We're stressing the system," he said.

The recommended complement of firefighters on an engine is four: a captain, an engineer, and two firefighters; but Prescott, CYFD, and CVFD operate with one less firefighter per engine.

The NFPA standard minimum number of firefighters required to fight a structure fire is between 16 and 18.

"With the four engines we bring, we're bringing 12," Freitag said. "So, based on national standard, our regular first alarm response, in our area, is less than the standard. We're not even bringing what they define as an 'effective firefighting force.'

"This is what we've got," he said.

Freitag said that, typically, the first three engines can get to a fire within that nine minutes Devendorf specified, but the fourth one, which has a much longer run, takes substantially longer to arrive.

"If you have a fire in a browned-out station's area and you already know we're not bringing an effective firefighting force, based on standards, and you already know the fourth engine is a delayed response, and now you've got a delayed response on the front end, you've got a lot of time... until somebody gets there."

"'Do more with less,' is what the banner used to be," Devendorf said, but now, "we've gotten to the point where we can't do more with less. We have to do less with less."

By Jan. 21, there had been 14 brown-out days in Prescott; Chino Valley, which had been expecting them due to a budget crunch has not been affected, said Freitag. Light said he expected to see fewer brownout days as the year went on, because there are two more firefighters in training, which will add to the pool of personnel available when they enter service in February.

Losing sleep

"Further reductions, either in personnel or the ability to staff, could have some significant impacts, both in the relationship (between the fire agencies) ... (and) the ISO, or Insurance Services Organization" which could cause insurance rates to go up, Light said.

That's not been a problem yet.

"Our homeowners rates are based on the actual claims experience in an area - from weather, hail, wind, water, fire, accidents, liability, theft, and so on. To the extent that response time effects fire losses, rates could be effected," State Farm Insurance spokesman Victor Hugo Rodriguez said. "There are other factors to consider, such as the frequency of incidents in the area and also if the quality of response changes from the fire department. It takes time to see what the claim experience turns out to be."

Bloom Tree Realty/The Good Life real estate agent Ryan Lowry said he hasn't had clients asking about an increased risk.

"I know some people are concerned, but none of my clients have brought that up," he said. "With the way new construction is done and the new building codes, we just don't have that many fires anymore."

Freitag said the current situation was still manageable.

"My concern is looking forward. If the city continues to reduce the budget to the fire department, and if they have further impacts are reductions in what they can provide, that has the potential of significant impact on our agency," Freitag said.

But Light said what causes him to lose sleep is the possibility of a disaster.

"As a fire chief, if I found the necessity to brown-out a station and I have a catastrophic loss of life, of a child, I don't know how I can communicate that to folks.

"But that potential will be here. I do lose sleep over those kinds of things, and I'm just hoping that, on our watch, it doesn't happen."

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