Sacramento firefighters take nearly two minutes longer to reach homes and businesses than what national experts recommend, according to new findings released this week.
It takes about five minutes and 55 seconds for fire crews to reach their destinations in 90 percent of instances, according to a consultant’s report the City Council will review Tuesday. The national best practice is to arrive within four minutes for 90 percent of calls.
The report found problems with how quickly and efficiently the Sacramento Fire Department manages calls but narrowed the issue to two underlying causes: understaffing and a lack of fire stations.
“The fire department growth has not kept pace with the growth of the city of Sacramento,” said department spokesman Christopher Harvey. “We have not hired to make up for all the of the people we lost during the recession.”
Firefighters union spokesman Roberto Padilla put it more bluntly.
“We are just grossly understaffed, and it is putting people at risk,” he said. “There is no doubt about it.”
Along with a lack of personnel, the city doesn’t have enough equipment or fire houses for adequate response, according to the report by Citygate Associates LLC. It recommends opening at least four new stations in addition to the 24 already operating.
In particular, the consulting firm suggests reopening Fire Station 9 in the Florin-Perkins area, which was closed due to budget cuts and is now used for volunteer reserve firefighter activities. It also recommends opening a new station at the Delta Shores development in southwest Sacramento and two others that would bolster coverage around the city.
Harvey estimated that staffing and running each station costs about $1 million annually, though total costs for additional resources and staff could be higher.
When it comes to major incidents, only the city’s downtown core and surrounding areas can be reached within the target 8 minutes, the report found. Such cases require four engines, two ladder trucks, one ambulance and two battalion chiefs. For multiple-alarm issues such as house fires that could spread, or situations where people need rescuing, response can be delayed outside of that central area.
We are just grossly understaffed, and it is putting people at risk.
Roberto Padilla, spokesman for the Sacramento firefighters union
City Manager John Shirey said that while population growth and development are adding to the need for more fire resources, the city also needs to maintain the ones it has.
“We are also in a situation where we need to replace aging fire stations,” he said. “(The) current stations … are just inadequate.”
Shirey said that at least four stations need renovation, including Fire Station 14 north of downtown and Station 15 in South Natomas.
The report also found that city ambulances are overworked and more are needed, especially during peak hours. Harvey said the city’s 15 ambulances are “among the busiest in the nation.” Ten local ambulances have a workload that is “past the critical saturation point,” according to the summary.
The city said the department responds to almost 47,000 calls annually for emergency medical services and 3,500 for ambulance transport. Fires and hazardous materials account for about 1,000 calls each year.
Padilla disputed those figures, calling them “extremely low.”
The preponderance of medical calls puts the greatest service burden on ambulance crews. Shirey said that reality “accentuates what I’ve been saying for quite a long time, which it that our fire department is really an emergency medical department.”
Shirey said he would like to see some medical calls handled by civilian responders at a lower cost to the city. He is advocating for the city to use emergency medical technicians that are not sworn firefighters on some ambulances.
The idea is controversial.
Currently, all firefighters are “all-risk” personnel, said Padilla, trained and allowed to handle most circumstances. Under the civilian EMT plan, the role of the responder is limited to medical care.
Padilla said limiting the capabilities of first responders can pose a risk to public safety if the responder lacks the appropriate skills or is unable to shift into another job – such as firefighting – when a situation calls for changing personnel.
“When I show up at the scene of something, I can do something,” said Padilla, a firefighter with training in such areas as swift-water rescues and handling hazardous materials. He compared all-risk staffing to having “a chess table with nothing but kings.”
Our fire department is really an emergency medical department.
Sacramento City Manager John Shirey
Councilwoman Angelique Ashby said that with tight city budgets and a growing population, the issue of staffing at the department was a critical conversation, but one with no quick answers.
“The hard part about public safety always is finding that balance between what we can sustainably afford and what the public demands,” she said. “When we are talking about public safety, we are talking a whole ... lot more about quality of life than money.”
Until that policy is discussed, Shirey said the fire department will likely be forced to continue to rely on overtime for staffing.
Harvey said the fire department is running a training academy for new hires that has 39 participants, and plans another academy for the fall with up to 25 participants. But the department is understaffed by about 60 positions.
Harvey said another factor in response times is Sacramento’s growing traffic congestion.
“There’s a number of places in Sacramento where the traffic congestion is so bad it’s difficult for our apparatus to get through,” he said. He specifically cited construction on Interstate 80 and downtown areas, including I and L streets, during rush hour.
The report also found that 911 response times were longer than the national standards. Those calls now require 144 seconds to be dispatched 90 percent of the time. The national standard recommends that 90 percent of calls be handled within 90 seconds, and 99 percent of calls be directed within 120 seconds.
Sacramento handles its 911 dispatch on a regional basis with other departments through the Sacramento Regional Fire/EMS Communications Center.
A spokeswoman for the center declined to comment on the report.