With response times lagging badly, West Fargo fire chief urges full-time crew
WEST FARGO—The mostly volunteer Fire Department here already fails to respond to calls as quickly as national standards recommend, a shortcoming the fire chief attributes to the city's rapid expansion.
About two-thirds of responses took longer than nine minutes in 2015. The guidelines call for no more than 10 percent to lag that long. So what will happen in the next four years, a time span in which the volume of fire calls could nearly double, based on past growth rates?
If Fire Chief Dan Fuller gets his way, the answer will be a full-time crew. He's recommending the city consider having a full-time staff of firefighters manning one fire house at all times, a costly upgrade in service the city's mayor says he's skeptical about.
The Fire Department's recently completed strategic plan calls for further examination and cost studies to begin as early as mid-2017. If a full-time staff of firefighters is added, it could happen as soon as 2019, though Fuller said that could change.
"That target is moving. It depends on the acceptance of the community and the cost factor," said Fuller, a former Minot firefighter who has been the department's chief for about a year. "Unfortunately, if we have a major loss, loss of life, it will get pushed up quicker. But if we can find our volunteers are handling it, for whatever reason we have a plateau on the call volume and we think we can squeeze three or more years out as is, we definitely will."
'Something to work on'
The West Fargo Fire Department has 45 volunteers, including 37 active firefighters, and four full-time administrative staff, including the chief and the newly created position of a fire marshal, who will oversee fire inspections and risk reduction. The department, a nonprofit with its own governing board that is separate but largely funded by the city, traces its roots back to a single-stall garage with a dirt floor built in 1940 on the site of what's now its Central Station, one of the city's two fire stations.
Fuller, two assistant chiefs and the department's board of directors and officers have spent the past six months creating a strategic plan for the next five years. Their report found the department only responded to 37 percent of all calls in 2015 in nine minutes or less. The National Fire Protection Association recommends response times for volunteer and combination departments be nine minutes or less for 90 percent of all calls, Fuller said.
"Obviously it is something we still have to work on," he said.
In 2014, West Fargo officials began to re-examine their response time data after an analysis by The Forum found more than a dozen impossibly short response times, like the four-minute response to a 2013 building fire 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, according to The Forum's analysis.
Fire officials claimed the bad data was due to undetected technology glitches. Fuller said he has been able to rectify those issues, making the new and far worse response data reflective of actual times.
The chief said he thinks increased traffic in the growing city is slowing fire call response, as is where the volunteers live and work related to the closest fire station. Fuller said that in the 1980s and 1990s, most firefighters lived within a 10-block radius of 13th Avenue West and Ninth Street East. Today, most live or work about 4 miles from the nearest station, he said.
"We have more firefighters living farther away from the stations than we have ever had before. There is only one way to fix that—build more stations or we have to put people in the stations to man a truck," Fuller said.
The report also found a 63 percent increase in calls from 2010 until 2015. The department responded to 379 calls in 2015, 334 within the city limits of West Fargo.
Using three separate models to estimate the future call volume, Fuller expects it could increase to more than 500 calls per year, and one model found it could jump to as many as 627 calls per year by 2020.
While Fuller plans to increase his volunteer roster to 55 this year, and split the staff in two so one group will be on for one week and the other on the next, the growing number of calls can still put a heavy burden on volunteers, who must leave work or family for fire calls at any time.
Statewide, volunteer firefighter numbers have been slipping. In June, the North Dakota Firefighters Association created a public service announcement to try to drum up more volunteer interest.
Question of cost
West Fargo's population has been booming for many years now. It grew from 14,500 people in 1998 to 33,360 at the start of 2015, or 130 percent over 17 years. The city expects to grow to 45,000 in the next 10 years.
That's made the question of whether West Fargo needs full-time firefighters common in recent years, but most city and fire officials have said they'd prefer to save the expense of a full-time department if response times stayed acceptable.
City Commissioner Mike Thorstad, whose portfolio includes the Fire Department, said he would likely support a change from all-volunteer firefighters, due to the mounting number of fire calls.
"I think ultimately we're going to have to, just for the sheer volume of calls. It can be taxing on the volunteers, not only them but their employers and their families. You can wear the volunteers out. I think it's a natural progression if the city gets bigger," he said.
But Mayor Rich Mattern is more skeptical of the fire department's strategic plan and he would like to learn more from other departments that operate on a volunteer/full-time model before considering changing West Fargo's method.
"If you come in with a preconceived notion that it should be changed, then you'll come up with a strategic plan that leads you down that primrose path," Mattern said. "I just think we need to do more homework. It's not a reflection on the Fire Department; they are all dedicated guys. The report is leading us in just one direction, and I need more info."
West Fargo City Administrator Tina Fisk said the city has been closely watching the effect traffic has on police and fire response times. Officials believe fire response times between the north and south ends have gone from three to seven minutes.
Fisk said the city would likely consider moving to a different model for fire services, which could mean the department eventually becomes part of the city.
"If it was in the best interests of the public, and the best interest of the Fire Department, the city would be very open to it," Fisk said.
Fisk said city officials haven't talked about how to pay for a move. West Fargo contributed about $725,000 in city funds to the Fire Department's $955,000 budget in 2016.
"There are avenues—sales tax, general obligations, taxes; there are different ways to finance it, if that is the case," she said. " Right now they are an independent agency so they finance their own buildings."
Though the report doesn't estimate the cost of staffing one station full-time, Fuller said it would take up to 13 full-time hires. They'd work on a rotating schedule out of the south station near 32nd Avenue South and Sheyenne Street, which could be remodeled to accommodate firefighter living quarters.
In Fargo, firefighters are hired for a starting salary of $47,262 and the maximum salary is $61,385, according to Fargo Human Resources Director Jill Minette.
Using Fargo's starting salary as a guideline, just the payroll for 13 firefighters would cost more than $600,000 per year.