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Bad data may burn West Fargo Fire Department

West Fargo Fire Chief Roy Schatschneider

WEST FARGO – West Fargo’s Fire Department has publicly claimed speedy and decreasing response times to fires and emergencies, but those numbers are based on a database that may be filled with inaccurate information, The Forum has found.

An analysis of the Fire Department’s runs dating back to early 2011 – when software systems were upgraded – revealed several irregularities that suggest the call log does not truly reflect the time it took firefighters to arrive on scene after being dispatched.

The Forum discovered more than a dozen impossibly short response times, like the four-minute response to a building fire last summer in north Fargo – 11½ miles away from West Fargo’s nearest station. To arrive in that window, the West Fargo crews would have to drive more than 170 mph without stopping.

Additionally, more than 85 percent of the department’s response times were a rounded minute – exactly four minutes, seven minutes and so on. In a database that logs start- and end-times down to the second, the odds of that happening are 1-60.

West Fargo Fire Chief Roy Schatschneider was unaware of those issues, for which he said he has no explanation. He and West Fargo Mayor Rich Mattern agreed it merits follow-up to ensure the Fire Department’s call logs accurately record the 

Fire Department’s call logs accurately record the response times to each incident.

Schatschneider emphatically denied any possibility that their times were made up or fabricated.

“Fabrication is out of the question,” the chief said. “I don’t even want the suggestion of fabrication.”

With a Fire Department staffed primarily by volunteers covering a city soon to eclipse 30,000 people, Schatschneider and Mattern regularly field questions about whether it’s time to consider becoming a full-time, career department. Despite the lack of reliable data to assess the department’s performance, both officials said they’re comfortable with the department’s coverage.

“We’re responding as quickly and as safely as we possibly can, regardless of how those numbers come out,” Schatschneider said.

Volunteer crew

When it comes to fires and medical emergencies, timing matters. Responders have about a five-minute window before brain damage sets in after cardiac arrest, according to medical research. And fires will generally flashover inside a room within 8 to 10 minutes of ignition.

Each Fire Department’s database of calls – which include the time a call comes in, the time firefighters are dispatched, how long it takes them to get loaded into the truck and the time it takes to arrive on scene – are one of the few objective ways to measure a department’s performance.

The Forum previously analyzed response times in Fargo and Moorhead and found that both departments fell short of a national standard that they arrive to nearly every fire within 5 minutes, 20 seconds after being alerted of a blaze.

But the West Fargo Fire Department is a different animal, and in more ways than one.

It’s primarily staffed by volunteers – Schatschneider is one of just three full-time employees. The department calls in 38 volunteers – down from 42 just about a year ago due to retirements, Schatschneider said – to the station to respond to emergencies.

The National Fire Protection Agency sets a different response time standard for volunteer departments, giving firefighters a much longer window to arrive because they have to drive into the station from home or work before getting on the fire engine. Almost 85 percent of fire departments across the nation are staffed mostly, if not entirely, by volunteers, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council.

West Fargo’s department also isn’t really part of city government. It’s a nonprofit contracted by the city to provide fire protection. It also provides coverage for the townships of Reed, Raymond and Barnes, Schatschneider said.

Full time?

West Fargo has nearly doubled in size just since 2000, according to U.S. Census records. The Fire Department’s budget allocation from the city has grown even faster – its $650,000 budget this year was an 80 percent increase since 2006, according to city records.

When Mattern and Schatschneider get the question about when they may need to transition to a full-time Fire Department, both point to the volunteer department in Bloomington, Minn.: a city of nearly 90,000 people that covers the Mall of America.

Whether it’s the city’s population or footprint, Schatschneider said there’s no clear breaking point at which a volunteer department should become a career department, with constant staffing at their stations.

“As long as we can handle the calls with volunteers, we’re going to do it. We’re saving taxpayer dollars,” Schatschneider said.

The chief said he does foresee adding several more full-time staff in the near future to help give volunteers a break from growing call volumes. Mattern agreed that may be necessary.

Ken Willette, division manager of public fire protection at the National Fire Protection Association, said there’s a point where every growing community needs to ask when to make the step to a career fire department.

“Some communities of that size are very successful with their volunteer deployment model. Some communities are struggling,” Willette said.

And the answer, he said, is in the data.

Fire departments should report that information to the community, so they “understand what they’re getting,” Willette said. “It needs to be reported on an annual basis. The data will tell you, and the statistics will tell you.”

‘Check into it’

Schatschneider goes before the West Fargo City Commission at budget time – and sporadically throughout the year – to give commissioners a verbal rundown on his department’s average response time, said Commissioner Mike Thorstad, who handles the city’s police and fire department portfolios. The commission hasn’t requested more detail or a written report, he said.

Later this month, the Fire Department will present its $685,000 budget request for 2015 – up from $650,000 in 2014.

“I’ve had no citizens or anyone that anybody has raised concerns about it,” Thorstad said. “In the bigger picture, the question is: Are they providing a high level of service? Every indication we’ve gotten is they are.”

After opening a second fire station in southern West Fargo in 2011, the Fire Department said average response times dropped citywide. But those averages may be based on faulty data.

Eighty-five percent of the West Fargo Fire Department’s completed calls since March 2011 showed response times that were exactly a rounded minute, according to The Forum’s analysis – a puzzling irregularity that Schatschneider acknowledged was cause for concern about the accuracy of the department’s call service logs.

After the irregularities were pointed out to Schatschneider, he provided The Forum with a different set of responses – made only by the Fire Department’s primary engine – for which 28 percent of the calls were a rounded minute (like 3:00 or 7:00).

In contrast, just 1.8 percent of nearly 30,000 responses in the Fargo Fire Department’s logs from 2008 through 2013 were similar rounded minutes. In Moorhead, it was 6.8 percent.

“We’re going to check into it and see why it’s coming out like that,” Schatschneider said. “If it’s something we are doing on our end, I want to address and get it taken care of.”

But Schatschneider also said any faulty data shouldn’t be a concern because his department performs well and has the support of the community.

Mattern and Thorstad backed up the chief on that point.

“You can never respond fast enough to a fire, but I’ve never heard anybody complain about the response times of our department,” Mattern said.

Kyle Potter
Kyle Potter is an enterprise reporter at the Forum. He came to Fargo-Moorhead in May 2013 after stints at the Associated Press, the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Minnesota Daily. 
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