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Sunday August 31st 2014

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Slow Burn

County Grapples with Gaps in Fire Service
By Jeremy Morrison

Firefighters provide perhaps the purest service government has to offer. If your house is on fire they will come and try to put it out. They’ll risk their lives, and maybe save yours.

When a fire call goes out, firefighters begin a race. A race against time, in which the situation could worsen exponentially by the minute.

Locally, Escambia County Fire Rescue rushes to respond to fires. Sometimes, however, the response time is longer than it should be due to unmanned and undermanned stations in the county.

On Thanksgiving Day 2011, a house caught fire about a mile away from the Station 16 in Warrington. There was no initial response from that station, an all-volunteer location. After more than eight minutes, a fire crew from the Navy base arrived on scene. Too late to save the victim, who was found at the front door.

More recently, on Sept. 26, there was another fire in the Warrington district. And another fire fatality, this time with both stations 16 and 11 never responding.

A crew from District 17 did respond to the Warrington fire. Unfortunately, a fire broke out in District 17 while they were on the call. Luckily, no one was injured or killed in that incident.

“The system is so stressed and it is hanging by a thread, literally,” said Firefighter Dan Brask.

A Strained System

Sitting at his kitchen table, Brask was frustrated.

“We have a remote controlled vehicle operating on Mars today, but we can’t get people out of a fire station?” he asked. “That just doesn’t make sense.”

As president of the Escambia County Professional Firefighters Local 4131, it troubles Brask to watch what he considers to be a deterioration of service. It’s not good for the citizens and it’s not good for the firefighters.

“It has a significant effect on morale, on the volunteer firefighters, as well as the career,” Brask said. “There’s nothing that affects a fireman more than hearing a call and there’s nobody there to fulfill that need.”

Recently, Escambia County crunched 10 months worth of numbers and found that stations had been non-responsive in more than 3,000 instances. Station 16 alone missed 670 calls.

When a station misses a call it is because it is unmanned, or there are not enough firefighters present to man a crew. Of the county’s 18 stations, eight are all-volunteer and four more are not manned with career personnel beyond four in the afternoon or on the weekends.

“It’s basically, this,” Brask said, crossing his fingers.

It didn’t take data to validate response and staffing issues to the union president. He had other validations.

“The problem was validated by that fire fatality,” he said. “The one that occurred last month and the one that occurred in November. That should have validated it.”

Brask attributes the county’s problems to the waning numbers of volunteer firefighters.

“The volunteer situation has faded, and that’s nationwide,” he said. “There’s just a downturn in volunteering.”

Escambia County Public Safety Director Mike Weaver is familiar with the issue. It’s been a problem in the county for years.

“It’s nothing new, that’s why volunteers started missing calls back in the 1990s,” Weaver said.

An Extraordinary Situation

In September, Fire Chief Daniel Spillman resigned from his position with Escambia County. He declined to discuss the reasons for his departure, but did outline some closing thoughts in an email to his comrades in the department.

“Stay the course as I know you will, always do the right thing and hopefully the political winds will change and allow the department to progress and whoever is the Fire Chief to make the necessary changes to really make a difference,” Spillman wrote. “I think we all know what those are.”

Weaver wasn’t sure if the response and coverage stresses were at play in the chief’s decision to resign.

“It may have had part to do with it, it was an issue he couldn’t overcome,” the director said. “It’s just a very tough job and some other issues—that may have been a portion.”

In an August letter to the county, Brask outlined the union’s position. He also offered some suggestions for temporarily addressing their concerns.

“The county needs to reinstate mandatory four man staffing so the career personnel can at least have adequate personnel when responding into fire districts that are lacking on volunteer response,” he wrote, also suggesting that Station 16 be staffed with 12 career firefighters.

Like everything else, the crux of this issue comes down to dollars. Weaver said that an increase in the level of fire service will require more money. That requires an increase in the Municipal Services Benefit Unit (MSBU), the tax that funds fire service.

Brask said he would like to see the department’s current available budget reworked to reflect the coverage concerns.

“They’re trying to say we don’t have enough money,” he said. “And we’re saying this is an extraordinary situation, you have to maximize every dollar for personnel.”

The Ambulance Answer

Brask is hopeful that the county’s data spurs action.

“I believe the majority of commissioners at this point would agree to hire more career personnel,” the union president said. “It’s just clear.”

Escambia County Commissioner Grover Robinson said he recognizes the problem. He also concedes the eventual, inevitable solution: an increase in the Fire MSBU.

“We may have to look next year at an increase,” Robinson said. “We just need more people.”

Wilson Robertson, chairman of the commission, isn’t quite ready to commit to a MSBU increase.

“I’m not right now,” he said, “cause they just increased it recently, a few months ago.”

Robertson has another possible solution in mind. More ambulances—“they’ve got about $11 million reserves at EMS.”

Along with responding to fires, firefighters also respond to other emergencies—“out at a fender bender, sweeping grass or whatnot”—as they are trained to provide emergency medical service. Unlike when firefighters respond to traffic accidents or other medical emergencies, a citizen is billed for the services of an ambulance.

“The fire trucks can’t collect a dime when they go out to these minor accidents, so we need to look at that,” Robertson said, venturing that the prospects of an ambulance bill would also cut down on calls for service—“then people will be a little more thoughtful when they call about a minor issue.”

Fundamental Question

In the immediate future, Weaver said the county may look at restructuring current resources in an effort to address the hotspots. Reshuffling the formula. He calls it a “cost-effective, easy fix.”

“It’s kind of the way the chief was leaning,” Weaver said.

Brask is ready for some sign of a plan. He describes the county as unresponsive to the problems facing the department.

“We’re doing our jobs, we’re doing our jobs in a stressed environment,” he said. “Where is their effort?”

Whatever the solution—be it restructuring, or an increase in the MSBU, or something else entirely—he hopes it comes soon. The validations are difficult for a firefighter.

“That’s a fundamental aspect of government,” said Brask, “to provide the services that citizens can’t do for themselves.”

Citizens, meanwhile, are experiencing varying degrees of fire service depending on where they live. Some stations sit empty and useless, as nearby fires and precious minutes burn and neighboring crews are drawn away from their districts.