West Fargo to hire full-time firefighters later this year to improve response times
WEST FARGO — After 77 years as an all-volunteer fire department, the West Fargo Fire Department wants to add full-time, paid firefighters to its roster by Jan. 1 to reduce response times and handle a rising number of calls.
The Fire Department plans to transition to a 58-member combination department, with 14 full-time personnel and 44 volunteer firefighters. The department now has four full-time staff members, including Fire Chief Dan Fuller, but responds with volunteers to calls in the city of nearly 34,000 and some surrounding rural areas.
Adding paid staff would mean one incident commander and four firefighters who are also EMTs would be working from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week. They would be stationed at the Southside Fire Station, which is just off Sheyenne Street north of 32nd Avenue West.
The full-time crew will allow the department to respond to medical and fire calls throughout the day. The volunteer firefighters will then be on an on-call schedule and will be called in as needed. They will also primarily man the department nights and weekends.
"That's the peak of our call volume in those 10 hours," Fuller said. "This plan is really what a modern fire department would do."
As part of the new department design, Fuller plans to hire a battalion chief who will work daytime hours Monday through Friday at the Southside Fire Station to provide leadership and take care of administrative duties such as scheduling.
The new staffing plan will need to be approved by the City Commission. Fuller said he plans to present the plan to the commission at its first meeting in June. The plan calls for adding a paid night crew within two years.
Mayor Rich Mattern, who had been skeptical of moving away from a volunteer department, said he supports Fuller's proposal.
"I've always wanted to keep as much of a volunteer fire department as we can. Yet I think we all realize we've grown, and we need to add more full-time people. I think they came up with a good idea. There will still be a lot of volunteer stuff," Mattern said.
But the increased cost of staffing the department could be a hard sell to residents, Mattern said.
The department now spends about $303,000 annually on firefighter salaries, which will increase to about $832,000 to hire additional firefighters.
The city contributes about $750,000 each year to the department's roughly $1 million total budget, and it would need to increase the city's contribution to help pay for the full-time staff.
"That is going to be a little problematic given the fact the Legislature is wanting us to pull back on costs and property taxes," Mattern said. "I think we need to work harder to sell the idea to the general public. It's a good thing, it's worth an extra few bucks to do that, but it could be a challenge."
Adding full-time firefighters would increase the department's budget to about $1.75 million. The Moorhead Fire Department budgets about $3.8 million each year. In Fargo, the Fire Department's budget is $11.5 million.
Fuller said the transition will not only help handle the city's booming population, but it is expected to cut down on response times.
"Response times aren't where they need to be," Fuller said. "In 2016, we were there within nine minutes only 32.3 percent of the time."
The National Fire Protection Association recommends response times for volunteer and combination departments be nine minutes or less for 90 percent of all calls.
One of the reasons for the longer response times is the reaction time for volunteers. While the trucks can get to most points in the city within six minutes, volunteers need to get to the firehouses first, which can add minutes to response times.
Fuller said he believes the plan would allow for a five-person crew to be on the scene of a fire emergency within nine minutes 90 percent of the time, meeting the national standard.
For medical calls, two firefighter/EMTs will be on the scene within six minutes 90 percent of the time. And in times of fire or large incidents, eight additional firefighters should be on scene within 13 minutes 90 percent of the time.
The new scheduling will ensure 13 firefighters are available 24 hours a day through a combination of shift and on-call personnel. The scheduling will also help limit the pressure on volunteers firefighters. All 45 volunteers are now paged out to fire calls.
"Our call volume is going up," Fuller said. "We've seen double-digit increases over a five-year span for about four years. We expect anywhere from a 7 to 11 percent increase in call volume and it's starting to take its toll on the volunteers."
According to the department's website, West Fargo firefighters responded to 407 calls in 2016, up from 379 in 2015.
The department expanded the Central Station with a second floor in 2000 for future full-time staffing needs, although the second floor has not yet been remodeled to house firefighters.
Fuller hopes to finish the second-story remodel with dorm rooms sometime this year. Within the next 24 months, he hopes to hire another four personnel, which would allow for a full-time staff on night shifts.
The department plans to start hiring the full-time crew this fall.
An open house is planned by the department from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. on May 31 at the Central Fire Station. There will be a short presentation to showcase recent grant awards from the Fargo Force, Cross Insulation, and the purchase of new self-contained breathing apparatus.