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    Brian Keaney

    More ambulances and fewer fire trucks

    by: Brian

    Sun Nov 18, 2012 at 23:12:42 PM EST

    A couple weeks ago the Selectmen invited the chiefs of the Police and Fire Departments to their meeting.  One of the topics of discussion with the Fire Department was the use of fire engines to respond to medical calls, and the associated expense that goes along with it.  In the course of that meeting Mike Butler said he wanted some more analysis on the issue, and as it so happens I've been working on just such a project, so I'm glad I can contribute a little bit to that discussion.

    In the Fire Department's report for 2010-2011 (not yet published) they acknowledge that "historically, the Fire Department has had a single function, the protection of life and property from the threat of fire. During the last 10 - 20 years the Fire Department has become a multi-functional, multi-hazard emergency and non-emergency response agency."  

    This is absolutely true, and the number of things the Department does today is vastly wider than was done 10, 20, or 30 years ago.  In fact, putting out fires is only a relatively minor aspect of what they do today.  Of the 6,248 responses the Fire Department made last year, only 188, or 3% of them, were putting out fires.  Even when looking at just the emergency responses, when our firefighters left the station it was only to put out a fire 4% of the time.

    Brian :: More ambulances and fewer fire trucks
    In 1980, on the other hand, we truly had a Fire Department.  That year they responded to 1,677 fires - 408 in houses, 148 in cars, and 1,121 in trash or rubbish.  That's 4.6 fires a day.  They also had 81 medical/ rescue calls.  Five years earlier, in 1975, there were zero medical calls.  If you look at just those two tasks in 1980, 95% of the calls were for fires, and only 5% were medical.  Fast forward to today.  The number of fires has decreased so much that they don't even break it down by type any more.  

    There's been a complete switch over the last 30 years; it's now 6% for fires, and 94% for medical calls.  You can really see the dramatic shift in the chart below. (Note that there were no statistics in the 1995 town report; I averaged 1990 and 2000 to get the data points.)  

    As you can see above, there were nearly twice as many medical calls made last year as there were fires in 1980.  After the number of fires decreased dramatically in the 1980s, the department took on an increased responsibility for making medical calls in the 1990s.

    Just since the turn of this millennium, the number of fires has decreased by 42%.  The number of medical calls, however, has increased  by almost exactly the same amount, 40%.  It's tough to tell from this chart because the medical calls line dwarfs the fires, but in 2006 we had as few as 69 fires.  Remember, this isn't 69 house fires we are talking about here.  This includes everything from the 4 alarm blaze in Riverdale the other day to the parking lot mulch that ignited when someone carelessly discarded a cigarette.

    This is not to take away anything from any of the very dedicated and brave men who serve in our Fire Department.  I have only the highest respect and appreciation for what they do.  As you can see from the photo I took on Booth Rd below, I've literally watched them run into burning buildings before.  

    However, we need to recognize that what we now ask our Fire Department to do is not to put out fires.  Instead, their primary mission is to respond to medical calls.  That is a role much better suited to an EMT in an ambulance than a firefighter in an engine.

    With that in mind, we really need to consider how we appropriate our resources.  At the Selectmen's meeting Chief Spillane warned that if we were to move a couple of our fire fighters to an ambulance that would mean taking one engine out of service.  That's certainly not something we should do lightly.  On the other hand, we need to ask ourselves where there is a greater need: for three engines and a ladder truck, or for more EMTS.  Given that putting out fires makes up only 3% of what the Fire Department does, I think a very strong case can be made for the latter.

    As bookworm pointed out in October, there are several vacant positions in the Fire Department.  However, the number of firefighters has remained pretty steady over the past three decades.  In fact, we have 61 firefighters today, which is 4 more than we did in 1980 when their primary responsibility was to actually to put out fires.  Especially with an aging population, we should think about reducing the number of firefighters and engine companies we have and moving that manpower and money into ambulances.  

    Consider what it costs just in terms of wear and tear to send an engine to respond to medical emergencies - and plenty of non-emergencies as well.  In 2008 we replaced a 15 year old fire engine with a new truck at a cost of  $435,000.  I don't know how much longer this new one will last if we stop sending it on medical calls but, for the sake of argument, say we can get an extra 5 or 10 years out of it.  That's over $1 million in savings right there, to say nothing about what we will save in gas on a 6 mile per gallon vehicle.

    I don't want to see anyone lose their job, but moving resources from firefighters to EMTs will also realize a great savings.  The average EMT in our area makes $33,508 a year.  The average employee of our Fire Department, including officers, made more than double that at $72,761 last year.  With over $4 million spent each year just on salaries for firefighers, we could save a bundle replacing some of them with EMTs.

    There are plenty of other factors I am not taking into consideration, but this post is long enough already.  What I am hoping is that we can at least begin to discuss how much can be gained, as well as what would be lost, by moving some of our resources away from fire trucks and into emergency medical vehicles instead.

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    ?? (0.00 / 0)
    Brian, taking a fire truck out of service is dangerous. EMTs are great, and I thank God for them everytime I have to call one for my mother. I also realize that firefighters are there to help EMTs - not for kicks and giggles or a change of scene. They are working these calls. Maybe a different vehicle would be more efficient, i.e., an SUV for those calls, although many times they need to use the equipment on the engine. But take a truck out of service?  Penny wise, pound foolish.  Are you willing to take a chance on not having an engine when it might be desperately needed? What about multiple calls in multiple parts of town? Do you want to be the one waiting for help when all the engines are tied up? Sure, the odds might seem to show that there are fewer fires. But there are are other issues - carbon monoxide issues, gas leaks - and I want a firefighter there. Plus, Dedham is not a small town anymore. We have more apartments now, and these mean more people. More people means more need for firefighters. Take a truck out of service now? I don't think so. As a taxpayer, I'd rather have the truck and pay for it and know that there is sufficient manpower to help.

    I think people feel that firefighters do nothing but watch TV or play on the computer when they are not on a call.  Spend time with them and you will realize that they study, train, and read. They are not idle. Yes, their job has changed to some degree. Mine has too, so that's a poor argument. While you're at it, why not cut down police, too? People think they just ride around doing nothing - but wouldn't you rather they were there just in case?

    Sorry, Brian - money does not trump people.

    Forgot this ~ (0.00 / 0)
    BTW - many, if not all, firefighters are EMTs as well.

    [ Parent ]
    Fairly Predictable (3.00 / 1)
    Brian presents compelling data showing that fire trucks may be in oversupply in Dedham. It's exactly data like these that should be driving town decisions, not emotional criteria, and certainly not "doomsday" arguments ("what if you have as many trucks as you would have ever needed for the past 20 years, but then a massive fire breaks out that requires more trucks than you have on hand, what happens then?").  You don't budget for doomsday, you don't staff your fire and police force in anticipation for doomsday. You make contingency plans for doomsday that include the use of all available resources, from within and without.

    I feel like Brian also did a nice job in laying out the case for future planning - it may be time to start shifting toward more EMTs in future hires. His suggestion was gradual attrition (with no current staff losing jobs), and if the data trends continue the way they've been going, this type of planning will make sense in the long run - both financially and logistically.  

    Given all that, I really don't understand this:

    Yes, their job has changed to some degree. Mine has too, so that's a poor argument.

    I really don't know what that means. Times change, jobs change, but that's a poor argument for changing the way the town runs things? Please elaborate.

    [ Parent ]
    Contingency plans (3.00 / 1)
    Are you willing to take a chance on not having an engine when it might be desperately needed? What about multiple calls in multiple parts of town? Do you want to be the one waiting for help when all the engines are tied up?

    You raise a good question.  What would happen if there were multiple calls in several parts of town?  

    To answer that, let's look at what happened at the fire in Riverdale last week.  One engine from Westwood and one from Needham came to help put out the flames, as did a ladder from Roslindale.  We also had fire trucks come from Norwood, Quincy, and Boston to cover the stations while our fire fighters were tied up in Riverdale.  If another fire broke out, the trucks from those three communities would have responded.  

    That's a total of 10 active engines and ladder trucks who were in our borders at that one time.  Obviously we don't and shouldn't carry a compliment of 10 trucks all the time.  As you can see, there are contingency plans in place to handle the very rare situation when there are multiple fires being fought simultaneously.  If we think regionally about the issue, and perhaps a little outside the box, I would sleep soundly tonight knowing that I am being protected by fire fighters from potentially every town between here and Quincy.

    As Stebi points out, we don't staff for the worst case scenario.  We make judgement calls about what is prudent, and if you and I come down on different sides of what is prudent that is fine.  However, at a time when we need to watch every penny I don't think it hurts to have the discussion about where that line lies. - a community since 1636 and online since 2007!

    [ Parent ]
    Mutual Aid (3.00 / 1)
    If we staffed for the worst case scenario, we would need far more than 10 Fire trucks. During most severe weather cases like Hurricane Sandy, Irene, and the ice storm at the start of 2011, the department responded to over 60 calls in a 24 hour period and that's not even the worst case scenario. Other area towns could not send help because they were experiencing the same weather. Currently the mutual aid agreement says we can SEND one engine and one ladder to other towns for help if need be. If we drop down an engine, we might not be able send help at all, or not until a much, much later alarm count to a town like Westwood or Needham or Boston, who would need us just as quickly as we needed them at the fire last week in Riverdale. Mutual aid is a two way street. Other towns can opt to not come to Dedham if they feel Dedham cannot send adequate help to them, the current number of fire apparatus allow Dedham to send the help and other towns feel comfortable returning the favor, as was displayed last week and on several other occasions this year. Let's not staff for the best case scenario either.  

    [ Parent ]
    I agree (3.00 / 1)
    Best case scenario is that we never have a fire again, and thus don't need a fire department.  Obviously that's not what I'm advocating here for either.  As I said above, I think we need to take all the factors into consideration and make our decisions accordingly. When we've gone from 5 fires a day to one every other day, I think we should at least consider the possibility of moving resources to where they are more urgently needed.

    To your point, however, we should also ask ourselves whether it makes sense today for each town to have it's own fire department.  I'm as pariochial as any other New Englander, but why not explore a regional system with Westwood, Norwood, Needham, etc?  Perhaps you are right and that if we were on our own it might not make sense to drop an engine.  If we were sharing resources with other communities beyond just mutual aid, however, perhaps it would.

    I've said it before and I'll say it again: this wasn't meant to be a comprehensive proposal.  That shouldn't stop us from talking about it, though. - a community since 1636 and online since 2007!

    [ Parent ]
    54 Firefighters (3.00 / 1)
    Tonight as Town Meeting I was approached by a couple of firefighters, and not unexceptionably they were not too pleased with this post.  One told me I needed to be educated, and that I accept.  I freely admit that I don't have a complete understanding of all the angles.  If you read the very last paragraph of this post I say as much, and say that my intention is simply to begin a dialogue on the matter, including what would be lost if we did take an engine company out of service.

    Another told me that I was mistaken in saying there were 61 firefighters today.  According to him there are only 54, and that includes those who are out injured.  He offered to show me the roster and I don't doubt his sincerity.  I think perhaps the difference may come down to who we are counting.

    I looked at the list of salaries in the back of the Town Reports, and counted 61 names of people who had fire fighter, fire lieutenant, deputy fire chief, or fire chief next to their name.  For comparison's sake, I counted 61 in 2005, 61 in 2000, 63 in 1995, 63 in 1990, 57 in 1985, and 57 in 1980.  Additionally, the Fire Department's own website lists the entire staff.  There are four work groups comprised of one deputy chief, one lieutenant, three firefighters on Engine 2, four on Engine 3, four on Engine 4, and two on Engine 1.  1+1+3+4+4+2=15, and if you multiply that by the four work groups, you have 60 members.  Add a chief and you get 61.

    If my math is wrong, or my counting is incorrect, or if I am wrong in some other way, I'd be happy to be proven wrong.  It certainly wouldn't be the first time.  Along those same lines, if there is anything else I am mistaken about it, please leave a comment here.  I'd much rather get all the facts out and be shown to be wrong than to have bad information stand. - a community since 1636 and online since 2007!

    Math (0.00 / 0)
    That is not the department's website, it is the town's website. Also, I have counted 6 people on that list who are no longer with the fire department, mostly from retirements. The current acting chief is listed twice, once as the Deputy Chief of group 3 and once as a Lieutenant on Engine 3,group 3.  

    [ Parent ]
    Town Reports (0.00 / 0)
    I'm not sure what you mean by it not being the Department's website.  Do they have another website that I am not aware of?

    Even if that page is out of date, there is still the count from the Town Reports where every Town employee is listed.  The most recent available is from 2009/2010, and I counted 61 names.  It's online, so you can count for yourself if you like.  What am I missing here? - a community since 1636 and online since 2007!

    [ Parent ]
    I did read (3.00 / 1)
    the town report. It was correct at the time it was published. 61 personnel including the chief, the secretary and the inspector. However when you scroll down the the employees payroll section, there are still 5 people on the payroll list who still have retired since then, and only one person has been hired since then. These numbers include the Chief, the secretary, and the fire inspector: 61-5 = 56. 56 + 1 = 57. At the 2012 town meeting, the department budgeted  and town meeting approved for 65 positions, inlcuding the chief and the secretary. 65 - 57 = 8

    [ Parent ]
    Also (0.00 / 0)
    Look at page 109 of the FY 2013 Town administrators budget for a reference to back up my numbers.

    [ Parent ]
    Thanks (3.00 / 1)
    Thank you for this.  I was using the most current information I had available to me.  However, while I did include the chief and a "Fire Lieutenant/Fire Inspector," I did not include administrative assistant in my count of 61.  I also didn't realize there had been so many retirements in the last year.

    The larger point remains, though.  No matter whether there are 61, 65, 57, or 1,000 firefighters, putting out fires is only 3% of what they do.  We should be looking at whether the other 97% can be done more efficiently and cost effectively by others.  I imagine that some of it can, and some of it can't. - a community since 1636 and online since 2007!

    [ Parent ]
    Question? (0.00 / 0)
    It looks like there are 57 active workers, with 5 retired, still on the payroll for a total of 62, but the Town budgeted for 65? Does this mean they plan to hire 3 more workers?
    Do you know which positions they are hiring for?

    Why are they hiring 3 more workers when 3% of their work is putting out fires? This will be the highest employee count in several decades.

    Also, twenty years ago they used to have an ambulance at the Station, then the engine died and they never replaced it, but the BOS, TA and Fire Chief have been talking about replacing it for the past two decades like its some kind of running joke.

    To me its priorities, do you spend $72K on "Antique Lights" for Dedham Square or $50K on gigantic "Flower Pots" for the Square, or do you spend the same $120K on an ambulance for the Fire Station?
    Hmmm, tough one!

    [ Parent ]
    This needed to be said (3.00 / 1)
    This is a very well discussed topic nationally. After some terrible years during the 1970s, fires started going down dramatically. Fire departments around the country saw their work load decreasing, and recognized the threat to jobs. As a result, there was a concerted effort on the part of unions and departments to take on what they had never done - answer medical calls. That's exactly what has happened. Politicians didn't want to mess with a union ready to fight all out to protect jobs, and went along. As a result, we have firefighters doing the jobs of ambulance drivers, in very expensive fire trucks. This has been a grotesque waste of resources all over the country.

    The correct number of firefighters and money spent on our fire department should be the minimum necessary to doing the job safely and efficiently - not a cent more. Whan a fire truck goes out of the station because someone had a little flutter in their chest, it's like burning money. That's money that won't be spent in the schools, or on a new police station.

    And by the way - I respect the old saying that one good fire earns your money for the year. That does not mean I'm willing to be bullied by 'they protect us' talk. A lot of people do dangerous work throughout the year, and they don't get a free pass. Getting on the department does not give you a free pass for the rest of your life. The department serves the town, not the other way around. Firefighters didn't answer medical calls in the past, and the earth kept spinning on its axis. People who are getting laid off from their jobs in the private sector can't be expected to treat the fire department in a hands-off, business as usual manner. If the town can do the same work for less, it should .  

    Very Good Points... (1.00 / 1)
    They have also been discussing the outsourcing of the dispatch and medical calls to an outside company, in or out of state.
    Many Towns across the country do this and maintain a very good response time and quality control of their incoming calls.

    Some say that keeping it local is somehow better as as guise to maintain job security.

    I hope they stop talking about it and start using regional dispatch asap, but it will be a fight between the Unions and the BOS & TA.

    [ Parent ]
    Seven days.. (0.00 / 0)
    To respond to an issue involving town employees. Must have been a busy Thanksgiving in Oakdale this year.


    Medical calls have been outsourced since the early to mid eighties. If you see a big white and blue truck with flashing red lights, caduceus symbols and the words Fallon, that's Dedham EMS.


    Think twice before you ask for regional dispatch. This type of system is primarily used in rual areas basicly because of pecuniary circumstances. The lower population makes it unrealistic to have a system such as Dedham uses and the response times abeit aceptable are no where near what residents are accustomed to despite what you may think and want us to accept as fact. (I assume by your name you have never lived anywhere else and you are making your opinion based on your own facts) Some larger departments (LA county for one) use regional dispatch outside the city and it is nowhere near the service you are receiving here. I speak with first hand experiences to both these examples. Good to see you don't let a little thing rapid response time and saving lives come between yourself and your dislike for town employees.


    The ambulance you speak of was at the Police station and not the fire station. It was the police who ran the ambulance before it was "outsorced" and the private company kept it and the Paramadics at the police staion for a while although I'm not sure when they moved. Also remeber the ambulance company provides Paramaedics, not EMT's. Big difference. You don't want to be stepping backwards with EMT's.

    I do agree with you on one thing. The lights and flower pots. Huge waste of money considering I was told the pots are already gone.  

    [ Parent ]
    Just a quick question (0.00 / 0)
    Will cutting back on one fire engine have any impact on homeowner's insurance?

    Don't think so (0.00 / 0)
    I asked around to a couple knowledgeable people, and no one seemed to think it would have any impact at all. - a community since 1636 and online since 2007!

    [ Parent ]
    Impact on insurance (3.00 / 1)
    Yes it will. All insurance companies use the ISO rating. (Insurance Service Organization) ISO collects information on municipal fire-protection efforts in communities throughout the United States. In each of those communities, ISO analyzes the relevant data using our Fire Suppression Rating Schedule (FSRS). We then assign a Public Protection Classification from 1 to 10. Class 1 generally represents superior property fire protection, and Class 10 indicates that the area's fire-suppression program doesn't meet ISO's minimum criteria.

    By classifying communities' ability to suppress fires, ISO helps the communities evaluate their public fire-protection services. The program provides an objective, countrywide standard that helps fire departments in planning and budgeting for facilities, equipment, and training. And by securing lower fire insurance premiums for communities with better public protection, the PPC program provides incentives and rewards for communities that choose to improve their firefighting services.  

    [ Parent ]
    Good Info. (0.00 / 0)
    Do you know what Dedham's "Public Protection Classification" is?

    Will this ranking appear on a typical "homeowners fire policy"?

    I don't know if this was in the Town consultants recommendation report on the Fire Dept., if not, it should be in there.

    [ Parent ]
    Dedham ISO Rating (4.00 / 1)
    I don't know. The last time I "heard" it was a 4 or 5 (not a good rating). Only a Town Administrator or Fire Chief can request an ISO review. Many things make up the rating from staffing, apparatus, locations of firehouses, training records of FD, water supply etc.

    What the Town & FD should be looking at are the NFPA Standards. Dedham has been lacking in this area as well.

    [ Parent ]
    Charts / Numbers (3.00 / 1)
    How can those numbers change for fire calls (1677 to 188), and Medical calls.

    Luxury home condo specialist.

    Town Reports (3.00 / 1)
    All the numbers were taken directly from the Fire Department's own entires in the Annual Town Reports.  I could speculate as to why the numbers have changed as dramatically as they have, but it would only be speculation. - a community since 1636 and online since 2007!

    [ Parent ]
    I Have The Same Doubts? (0.00 / 0)
    The chart lists in 1980 their were 1677 fires for the fiscal year, that's 4.6 fires each day, for 365 days! Seems hard to believe, they must have just stayed in the fire trucks all day going from one fire to another for the entire year.

    In 1985 their were 1154 fires, that's 3.2 fires for 365 days.

    What was their gas bill? Actually, that might be a way to verify those numbers. If the gas/diesel bill was roughly the same as years with much less travel/calls, then something is wrong?

    I think the FD must have made reporting mistakes?

    [ Parent ]
    Thank you to Fire Department (3.00 / 1)
    On Sunday at 5:45 a.m., my elderly mother fell, striking her head. I called the FD because I could not pick her up alone. In less than three minutes, they arrived after having been awakened from sleep. The ambulance also arrived, and my mother was placed in a neck brace and put on a back board. Unfortunately, one of the EMTs hurt his back in the process. FF Jared Blaney and Michael Huff immediately stepped in and carried her to the ambulance. Maybe it seems like a small thing, but my mother was diagnosed with a subdural hematoma (brain bleed)due to the fall. Without their fast action, she might very well have died. If that engine had been put out of service, I don't know what would have happened because time was crucial in her survival.

    There may be fewer fires - thanks in part of the FD's fire inspection service and the education that they give - but they do much more than fight fires. The next time a hazardous situation arises (i.e., gas leaks, toxic material, etc.), I hope there will be sufficient manpower to deal with the situation.  I proudly stand by our firefighters.

    data sources (0.00 / 0)
    Brian, please state where you get your data sources from. Do you have access to the MIFRS? Your percentages seem to be way off base here and because you post nice graphs doesn't necessarily mean they are correct.  

    Town Reports (4.00 / 1)
    As I have mentioned six other times (plus GreenBandit's one), I got my data from the Annual Town Reports.  The most recent version online is the 2009-2010 reports.  As you can see on page 216, Chief Cullinane lists 167 fires and explosions and 2,420 medical and rescue calls between July 1, 2009 and June 30, 2010.  In case you were wondering, the entirety of the emergency calls made that year consist of:

    Fire/Explosions                                     167
    Rescue/Medical                                    2420

    Motor Vehicle Accidents                           297
    Non-fire spills and leaks/Other hazards     83
    Power lines down/Arcing wires                104
    Service Calls                                         694
    False/Accidental Calls                             551
    Miscellaneous Calls                                17

    Total Emergency Calls                          4333

    In the book there is a further breakdown of the 1,705 non-emergency calls made.  

    I don't have access to the MIFRS, but if you have different data I would love to see it.  Are we reporting different numbers to an outside agency?  How "way off" are they? - a community since 1636 and online since 2007!

    [ Parent ]
    Data (0.00 / 0)
    Sorry I had a typo, MFIRS (Massachusetts Fire Incident Reporting System)

    Is a system that all Mass FD report to.

    [ Parent ]
    Where am I off? (0.00 / 0)
    The MFIRS lists that we had 192 fires in 2010 (page 176).  It appears they use a calendar year, whereas in the Annual Town Reports we now use a fiscal year.  Even still, as you can see from my chart above, the Chief reported 188 fires in 2010-2011.  That seems pretty accurate to me.  Can you show me where I am way off? - a community since 1636 and online since 2007!

    [ Parent ]
    Again, where am I off? (3.00 / 1)
    If my numbers are off, I'd really like to know where.  As I showed, my data is from the Annual Town Reports and the numbers reported to the MFIRS is consistent with that.  

    Which of my percentages is wrong?  When I divide the number of fires, 167, by the total number of calls for service, 6,038 (4,333 for emergency and 1,705 for non-emergency), I get 2.76%.  I rounded that up to 3% in the post.  How is that way off base? - a community since 1636 and online since 2007!

    [ Parent ]
    A week (0.00 / 0)
    It has now been a week since you made the claim that my calculations are "way off base."  I've shown you my sources, shown you how I did my calculations, compared my data to your source, and asked you three seperate times to show me where I was wrong.  Unless I see evidence to the contrary, I am going to assume I was right. - a community since 1636 and online since 2007!

    [ Parent ]


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