The city’s only fire station in the Port of Tacoma would shut down, and stations in Proctor and East Tacoma would lose fire engines, staffing and services, under a plan to help Tacoma balance its cash-strapped budget.
In all, the Tacoma Fire Department’s number of active fire engines would drop from 16 to 13, and its minimal staffing levels would fall by five to seven firefighters, depending on the time of day.
But despite the proposed cuts, Fire Chief Jim Duggan told the City Council last week that Tacoma’s remaining fully staffed engine companies and other department services would be able to pick up the slack, effectively covering emergency calls in areas affected by the cuts.
“We are very confident that we can continue to provide our basic core services,” he said Tuesday.
Representatives of the city’s firefighters’ union declined to comment after Duggan’s budget presentation Tuesday. But on Saturday, union members blanketed affected neighborhoods with fliers warning, “Your safety will decrease.” The leaflets described the budget cuts and also encouraged citizens to contact city officials and to voice their feelings at the next council meeting on Tuesday.
Targeted for closure is Station 6 – the city’s lone firehouse on the Tideflats – which is on East F Street across the Thea Foss Waterway from downtown.
In its absence, firefighters based in a variety of other city stations would be able to travel to calls in the port area within four minutes – the national standard for fire vehicle travel times – from station to the scene of an emergency, Duggan said.
Also facing reduced services are Station 13, on North 25th Street in Proctor, and Station 15, at East 64th Street and McKinley Avenue on the East Side.
Both stations would stay open, but with one fewer firefighter and no active fire engine. Each would be staffed by two firefighters using a “response vehicle” to travel to calls – instead of an engine company staffed by three, the response model now employed.
The response vehicles would be equipped with required emergency medical supplies and firefighting tools, Duggan said. They’re also able to transport firefighters to any emergency call, but they can’t help fight fires.
“There will be no pump, there will be no water tank and no hose inventory,” Duggan said. “So they are not small engines.”
The Proctor station would be staffed only part time, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Other city fire stations would serve the district as needed overnight, while still meeting the four-minute travel standard, Duggan said.
Meantime, the East Side station would continue to be staffed around the clock. The department also would keep two of its inactivated fire engines “turn-key and available for deployment” should a major emergency strike, Duggan said.
Along with the station cuts, the department also will seek to stand down its municipal alarm system by 2014, Duggan said. Dating to about 1930, that alarm system relies on copper wiring to connect about 200 facilities – city buildings, schools, hospitals and some private businesses – to the fire department’s dispatch center.
“We are the only fire department west of the Mississippi that still … maintains a municipal alarm system,” Duggan said.
The system won’t be shuttered for at least a year, giving patrons – who now pay the city $18 per month for the service – ample time to find private vendors to supply alarm service, the chief said. Discontinuing the system will save the department about $100,000 in 2014, officials estimate.
To offset the effects of dwindling resources, the department will implement a de-centralized training program so firefighters can meet required training protocols while staying in their firehouses – and still available for calls.
It also will launch the “FDCares” public-awareness campaign, borrowed from the Kent Fire Department, to help prevent emergency service calls that are better suited for other agencies, not first responders.
In normal times, Duggan added, he’d be asking for more funding to enhance city fire services.
“But we are where we are,” he said. “And what we are proposing is the elimination of 27 commissioned and two support staff positions.”
In all, the fire department faces $11 million in cuts from its current $131 million budget under the 2013-14 budget proposed by City Manager T.C. Broadnax. That includes a $7.3 million reduction from the general fund and $3.7 million in losses from the EMS levy and other special revenues.
The department counteracted some of the losses by winning a $7.7 million federal grant this year, helping it stave off layoffs to an additional 37 firefighters.
The fire budget is part of Broadnax’s overall plan to close a $63 million general fund shortfall projected for the next two years.
His $396 million spending plan calls to close that gap by a combination of across-the-board department cuts – including eliminating more than 200 positions – and raising new revenues. The new money would come by imposing vehicle license tab fees on Tacoma’s drivers and restoring now-exempted business taxes on its nonprofit hospitals.
Council members, who are now reviewing Broadnax’s proposal, are expected to vote on a final budget Dec. 4.
If approved, the proposed fire department general fund cuts will eliminate 29 employees, including 27 firefighters. Three other fire jobs would be lost because of other declining revenues.
To meet the reduced-staffing goals, city officials hope at least 20 firefighters of those now eligible to retire will accept the city’s retirement incentive – $1,000 for each year of city service, up to a maximum of 30 years.
The cuts would whittle Tacoma’s fire staff to about 285 employees for a department that responded to more than 25,000 emergency medical calls and nearly 1,100 fire calls last year, Duggan said.
The department’s coverage area stretches beyond Tacoma; it serves Fircrest and parts of unincorporated Pierce County under contracts.
Meantime, the department’s minimal staffing levels – the number of firefighters needed to operate the equipment in use – would fall from the 74 firefighters used around the clock now to 69 during peak, daytime hours, and 67 during off-peak, nighttime hours, Duggan said.
With fewer firefighters comes reduced services, and the chief said he determined which stations to target only after a deep analysis.
It involved weighing a number of factors, he said – the number of annual calls handled per station; the capacity of the next closest stations; whether overlap coverage from other stations could meet the four-minute travel time coverage; and how potential station closures or cuts would affect the city’s entire response system.
“It really became a matter of a process of elimination and trying to select … the combination of closure and modifications that least affects our entire system,” Duggan said.
Under the plan, the department would wait to close Station 6 until after the Murray Morgan Bridge reopens to traffic in February, so fire vehicles from other stations could more readily respond to the port area.
Likewise, fire officials are considering options to equip the department’s Training Center, on the Tideflats, with fire rigs that could be deployed as needed, Duggan said. The department’s fire boats, which are moored at the unstaffed Station 18 on the east side of the Foss, will continue to fully operate, he added.
Councilman Jake Fey, whose district includes the industrial Port area, noted the Tideflats at one time housed two city fire stations. In 2006, Engine 15 was relocated from a station near the Hylebos Bridge to the converted house on McKinley that became today’s Station 15, a move intended to help the department keep up with then-increasing calls for service on the city’s east and south sides.
Last week, Fey asked Duggan: “Are you aware of any other major metropolitan area that has a port of this size that doesn’t have a fire station in its boundaries of the port?”
“Off the top of my head,” Duggan responded, “I’m not.”
But, the chief added, once the bridge is reopened, personnel at several stations will be able to meet model travel times in responding to calls on the Tideflats.
“Because of our concentration elsewhere, we do have the capability to respond and we will continue to respond to the Port,” Duggan said.
Port officials are aware of the city’s proposed fire cuts but haven’t taken an official stance, said Port of Tacoma spokeswoman Tara Mattina.
“Some firefighters have reached out to our individual commissioners,” Mattina said Thursday. “But they have not taken any positions – nor would they typically weigh in on a city budget matter.”
Port security already contacts city police and fire officials on a regular basis “just to make sure that response times are maintained,” Mattina added.