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INTERACTIVE MAP: Trains, fewer stations stretch Moorhead fire response times

MOORHEAD – A summer thunderstorm nearly destroyed Matthew Potter’s home in Oakport Township a year ago.

Potter and his family were grabbing flashlights for a night in the dark when he heard crackling and smelled smoke from the basement. Lightning didn’t simply strike close to the house – it hit it dead on, quickly igniting a fire.

Dilworth firefighters arrived first, then more volunteers from Sabin, Potter said. Stationed seven miles away, the Moorhead Fire Department took more than 11 minutes to get there after being dispatched.

Potter’s house fire illustrates the logistical problem of responding to emergencies as Moorhead grows north and south. With Moorhead set to take over firefighting duties in Oakport when the city annexes a large swath of the township in 2015, it’ll spread a department struggling to meet national standards for timely responses even thinner.

The Forum analyzed the Moorhead Fire Department’s responses from 2008 to 2013 – nearly 16,000 calls total – and found the department has taken twice as long to make it to emergencies in the southern reaches than those closer to the city’s core.

And like its counterparts across the Red River – and nearly every fire department in the country, experts say – Moorhead’s fire department has fallen far short of the National Fire Protection Association’s standard that they arrive to nearly every fire within 5 minutes, 20 seconds after being alerted of a blaze.

CLICK HERE to see the Moorhead Fire Department's response times in your area

Looking at the map displaying his department’s performance, Moorhead Fire Chief Rich Duysen said: “It’s pretty obvious. We know we need to build south.”

Duysen said he can foresee building a third fire station in the next five years. Another big problem, he said, is the constant train traffic: an estimated 120 trains every day, stopping fire engines at crossings. For years, the city has been pursuing federal funds to build more tunnels or bridges for traffic to easily cross the tracks.

“You can imagine when you’re two blocks away and you can’t get to something, how frustrating that can be,” he said.

‘We don’t have the numbers’

The Forum’s analysis of Moorhead Fire Department’s performance does not show the full response time, from the time a call comes in until the crew arrives. Due to a switch to a new database system in 2011, it’s missing each incident’s call processing time – how long it takes dispatchers to alert a department of an emergency – which can add anywhere from a few seconds to two minutes or more to a call.

But minutes and seconds matter when responding to fires and medical emergencies.

Responders have about a five-minute window before brain damage sets in after cardiac arrest, according to medical research. A fire will generally flashover inside a room within 8 to 10 minutes of ignition.

That’s why the NFPA promotes a national standard, which says that firefighters should arrive to 90 percent of fires within 5 minutes, 20 seconds of being dispatched.

According to an analysis of Moorhead’s service logs, the fire department made it within that window on just 63 percent of fire responses from 2008 through 2013.

Though he called it an “important measure,” City Manager Michael Redlinger noted the NFPA’s standard isn’t a law. And it’s a measure that departments across the country struggle with – particularly smaller departments like Moorhead’s, said Mark Light, chief executive officer with the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

“The larger the departments, the easier it is to meet a lot of these response time goals,” Light said.

Duysen agreed.

“We don’t have the numbers that Fargo has,” he said.

Fargo’s Fire Department has more than double the staff and five more stations spread across town. Though Fargo firefighters have also struggled to meet the NFPA’s standards, according to an analysis by The Forum last month, they have regularly surpassed their own, slightly longer metrics tailored to the size, shape and risks of Fargo.

Redlinger stressed that the Moorhead department has added five firefighters in the past seven years. They’ve also worked with F-M Ambulance to narrow down which medical calls they’ll respond to – only urgent emergencies, “where we can actually do good,” he said.

“That’s one or two calls a day that we’re not going on now, where we’re not needed,” Duysen said.

Adding in Oakport

Matthew Potter and his family were forced out of their house in Oakport Township after lightning struck last June 26.

He chalks up the fire to bad luck. He said he’s not sure how he feels about Moorhead taking over fire services – Dilworth’s volunteer fire department currently serves the area.

“We only have the one event to really draw any conclusions from. I don’t know if it would have mattered one way or another” who was the primary fire department, and how fast they got there, Potter said. “We know how unbelievably unlucky we really were.”

Duysen said bringing Oakport into their coverage area will have wide-ranging impacts. What if another call comes in while a crew is responding to an incident there, he asked. The department may have to rotate staff to its northern station when that happens, he said.

Due to its small size, Duysen said he can’t justify building a third station near Oakport. Instead, they’ll focus on the developing south end of town.

No ‘magic number’

There’s no “magic number” at which it becomes clear they need to build a new fire station, Redlinger said.

Both Duysen and Light, from the International Association of Fire Chief, said those decisions are usually prompted by public outcry after a tragic incident.

“With the budget pressures, people have a higher risk tolerance than they might when budgets were good,” Light said.

But after years of focusing on building up the city’s flood protection, Redlinger said they can finally focus on planning other infrastructure projects such as fire stations, roads or parks.

Duysen said he hopes to start a station location study in the next several years.

In the meantime, Duysen and Redlinger said building out 20th Street south of Interstate 94 – a project long in the works – will help reduce response times in south Moorhead. The city is also studying one or more railroad underpasses downtown in addition to a 21st Street underpass, for which Moorhead has been seeking federal funding for four years running.

So while additional stations are key, they’re just one of several factors that affect the department’s ability to quickly arrive at a fire or medical emergency. And making sure firefighters arrive on time is always a work in progress, Redlinger said.

“This is always something that is going to be studied. We’re never going to be done,” he 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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