Saturday, August 21, 2010

Debunking Myths and Recalibrating Perspective

Some things you should know about your Fire Department and your City.

Why is appropriate staffing important? Not only does the right staffing level mean more services and a safer community, but it also means a safer work environment for the firefighters.

Why do so many firefighters show up at my front door when I call 911? 
  • When you call 911 the fire department gets a dispatch telling them the address and incident. Even the most basic medical or fire call requires multiple trained professionals. Fortunately, not many residents have experienced a 911 call. Not many have witnessed CPR being performed, or watched a patient being extricated from a mangled vehicle, or know what it's like running hose and equipment up 17 flights of stairs. These tasks demand teamwork.
  • By removing firefighters from the equation the work load is spread out amongst the remaining. This means it takes longer to do the same tasks, or in some cases certain tasks have to be omitted, which is inefficient, when every second counts.
Fewer Firefighters = Longer It Takes To Accomplish Tasks = Less Efficient

Why did the City decide to increase the fire staff?
  • El Segundo is no longer strawberry fields and local farms. Raytheon, Boeing (highest insured building in the world at $1 billion), Northrop Grumman, U.S. Air Force Base, multiple hotels, "Smokey Hollow," International Rectifier, 20+ high-rises and Chevron are just some of the most hazardous, volatile and dangerous target hazards that surround our community. These businesses along with the homes and apartment buildings are the fire department's responsibility to protect.
  • In 1998 OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) required fire departments throughout the nation to abide by the "two in/two out" rule. OSHA 1910.134 (g)(4) states that a minimum of 2 employees enter the IDLH (immediately dangerous to life or health) atmosphere and at least 2 employees remain outside the IDLH atmosphere for rescue purposes, if one or both firefighters inside need to be rescued themselves. (An IDLH atmosphere is a fire, hazardous material, confined space, any incident that requires respiratory protection). 
  • The national average is 1 firefighter to every 1000 residents. If El Segundo was truly a bedroom community of just 17,000, 17 firefighters per day would meet the national average. However, El Segundo is not average. With the undulating population (up to 100,000 during the work week) and the fact that El Segundo is a high risk city, the 19 firefighters, to some, might seem low. Over the years, fire management, the fire association and the city have worked together to give the citizens and businesses a fire department that can effectively protect the city.

Chevron and Northrop have their own small fire response. They each have 3 fire suppression members on per day. They rely mainly on the city's fire protection services. When El Segundo Fire responds, Chevron and Northrop relinquish incident control.

El Segundo Firefighters work what is called a 48/96. 48 hours (2 days) on duty and then 96 hours (4 days) off. Firefighters work 10 days a month or a 56 hour work week. The average job schedule is 5 days a week or a 40 hour work week. Firefighters on average work 80 more hours a month. That is 960 more hours a year. All the south bay city fire departments (manhattan, hermosa, redondo, torrance) work the 48/96 schedule. This allows for better interoperability. Regardless of a fire department's schedule (there are many variations) they all work a 56 hour work week.

Why then, do our firefighters work 48 hour shifts? The main reasons are:
  • 48 hour shifts actually reduce overtime costs.
  • 48 hour shifts decrease administrative costs (cost effective because administration only needs to keep records and deal with employee requirements for one shift per day rather than three shifts per day). 
  • Helps reduce commute times and allows employees more choices on where they can live and raise their families.
  • Increased productivity and project follow through on duty.
  • Reduces sick leave.

To dispel a common misconception, all firefighters pay for their own food, condiments, coffee, etc...

Currently there is no charge to call 911 or for any type of response to your home or business. There is a fee for TRANSPORT to the hospital. The city bills the patient's insurance (if they have it) and accepts whatever the insurance company will pay. If there is a monetary difference, the city does not bill the patient for the remainder and subsidizes the cost.

The El Segundo Fire Department has Captains and Engineers and even one Firefighter that carry a paramedic license, and they get compensated to keep that license valid. This is a great tool for the city because it allows them to activate an engine and their truck as paramedic assessments.  What this means is, when both rescue ambulances are on other calls, paramedics are still available for calls with appropriate equipment. We all know paramedic support is very important to us here in El Segundo. The more paramedics the better. There have been many instances where a captain or engineer have started ALS (advanced life support) procedures which led to positive patient outcomes when time was of the essence. Many departments, even ones in the South Bay, not only employ paramedics but require all their fire personnel to be licensed as paramedics.

Many have been given the wrong impression. The Fire Chief even admitted he mis-spoke when he said El Segundo only has one fire a year (he meant "BIG" fire, when it requires multiple resources or jurisdictions). This coincides with the staffing issue. At 19 they are adequately staffed to handle multiple calls. They are able to respond very quickly to fires, keeping many fires small and under control. We take for granted the benefits of a very well trained fire department. Listed below are the annual fire calls for the past 7 years according to NFIRS (National Fire Incident Reporting System):
  • 60 fires, $53,155 estimated loss (2009)
  • 69 fires, $977,981 estimated loss (2008)
  • 75 fires, $697,195 estimated loss (2007)
  • 63 fires, $716,275 estimated loss (2006)
  • 57 fires, $669,750 estimated loss (2005)
  • 57 fires, $11,010,683 estimated loss (2004)
  • 58 fires, $379,719 estimated loss (2003)
On average El Segundo has 62 fires a year (averaging the past 7 years), and on average has lost over 2 million dollars a year in estimated loss(I realize the spike in 2004 and the dip in 2009). Realize that most of these fires are not big, but are contained and kept small with a quick response and effective staffing (in addition to daily fire prevention). The 19 firefighters are your insurance policy. 

A 24/7 workforce, and the citizens expect that their fire department is always at the same staffing level everyday, every hour, all the time. Why? For the obvious reason that disaster can happen anytime (another reference to the City's insurance policy). The agreed staffing level for El Segundo was determined at 19 after examination of previous years' call volume and potential for major emergencies. On any given day a resident can be reassured that 19 firefighters are protecting the city. Because of this "constant staffing," overtime is a necessity. Firefighters call in sick, take vacation, get injured. These are inevitable occurrences. Therefore, a firefighter must be called in to replace the empty position. It is important to understand this applies to the fire profession as a whole with any type of schedule arrangement. Overtime is a direct result of the 24/7 service with a constant staff of firefighters.

Now the city of El Segundo has decided to "run down" from 19 to 14 firefighters. This was decided because of the economic deficit that the city faces. If the city does not have to back-fill a position then overtime is drastically diminished. Most of the money saved by the city up to this point has been from the savings from the reduced overtime in the fire department. My point here is to educate the reader that overtime is not a device created by firefighters to make more money. It is an obligation of the city to provide a consistent fire department force. It is a natural product of the system.

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