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Mayor prefers external probe of inaccurate WF fire data

WEST FARGO – West Fargo’s mayor says he prefers an external review of inaccurate Fire Department response time logs uncovered by The Forum last month.

A Forum analysis of West Fargo Fire Department call times dating back to early 2011 revealed irregularities that suggested the recorded response times didn’t reflect how long it took firefighters to arrive on scene after being dispatched.

The July 6 story prompted a review by Fire Chief Roy Schatschneider and the assistant chief who keeps the volunteer department’s database.

The review found some of the response times were estimated after the fact, a problem the chief vows to fix via training.

But Mayor Rich Mattern said Friday the City Commission still may ask the fire chief to seek an external review, a prospect that he hadn’t previously raised.

“I guess I would probably feel a little better, and I think maybe the public would, too, if somebody externally looked at it, just as a comfort level thing for everybody,” Mattern said.

“We all want to feel safe, and I think we are,” the mayor said, “but if it’s going to make the residents feel even safer, that there was also an external (reviewer), then so be it. I’m all for it.”

Schatschneider will appear before the City Commission on Monday night to discuss the review, which he said has been “strictly internal” thus far.

Estimated times

The Forum’s analysis last month discovered more than 85 percent of the department’s response times were a rounded minute – exactly 4 minutes, 7 minutes, and so on. In a database that logs start and end times to the second, the odds of any one response time being an even minute are roughly 1 in 60.

The chief said he had no explanation for the irregularities at the time.

After an internal review, he said Friday that some of the inaccuracies can be explained because response times were estimated after fire crews had responded.

Schatschneider said response times are tracked in two ways: Either a firefighter has to manually punch them into computers inside the lead engine or someone at the Red River Regional Dispatch center has to track the times during a call.

“But being volunteers, sometimes they forget to do that,” Schatschneider said of his firefighters. “And if central (dispatch) doesn’t keep track of the times, then we lost times. So it doesn’t mean that we’re slow responding or anything, it just means that the times aren’t being recorded as they should.”

With no one monitoring times, they have to be estimated later “as close as we can get it,” the chief said. He said they were likely estimated by the assistant fire chief who keeps the database.

Schatschneider said “without going back and reviewing 900 responses,” he did not know how many of the times were estimated. He said he has been working with his firefighters and with dispatchers to fix the problem.

“We have some issues, but we’re working through it,” he said.

Contracted nonprofit

West Fargo’s volunteer department isn’t 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.

Mattern said the City Commission can work extra provisions into its contract with the Fire Department asking that the chief give more frequent reports and requiring an external review.

“I don’t think Roy or anybody would object to (an external review),” Mattern said. “I think Roy wants to do everything he can to do things the right way. This came along, and I know that he feels bad about it, and I think we all do, but let’s figure out a way so it doesn’t happen again.”

The Forum’s analysis also revealed more than a dozen impossibly short response times, such as a 4-minute response to a building fire 11.5 miles away, which would require fire crews to travel at a nonstop speed of nearly 3 miles a minute. or about 180 mph.

Mattern said that particular call ended up being a false alarm and should not have been entered into the logs as a completed call. He said several false alarms were incorrectly logged in this way.

The mayor acknowledged that human error played a role in the inaccuracies, but he also wondered if a software glitch was also involved.

Mattern also said he was feeling “pretty good” that the reason for the inaccuracies does not appear to be blatant deception, based on the internal review.

“I’ve known those guys for years, and I know that they would never mislead any of us on the City Commission or the residents, because they’re all residents themselves,” Mattern said.

Erik Burgess
Erik Burgess covers city and county government for The Forum. He started as the paper's night reporter in 2012, after graduating from Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. He was born and raised in Grand Forks, N.D., and also spent time interning at the Grand Forks Herald.  Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to
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