Puyallup: News

Guest column: East Pierce Fire & Rescue details plan to address staffing challenges

East Pierce Fire & Rescue Chief Bud Backer.
East Pierce Fire & Rescue Chief Bud Backer. East Pierce Fire & Rescue

Most people assume that when a fire engine arrives at an incident, there are enough firefighters to do the job efficiently and safely. That’s not the case at East Pierce Fire & Rescue (EPFR).

We have only enough staffing to assign two firefighters to each fire engine. The national standards recommend four firefighters per engine, however in the Puget Sound region, the standard is three, leaving us one short to respond to your emergencies.

In this article, I will focus our current staffing needs. The numbers discussed do not address future needs, such as adding another medic unit to handle the increasing calls for medical emergencies.

We are a combination fire department that relies on career and volunteer firefighters to provide service to more than 90,000 people living within a 152-square-mile area. All of our firefighters are either firefighter-EMTs or firefighter-paramedics, who respond to every type of emergency.

Our call volume has grown and will continue to grow. This year, we are on track to respond to approximately 10,000 alarms — a nearly 7 percent increase over 2014.

To effectively respond to your emergencies, we must increase both career and volunteer staffing. Career firefighters staff six stations, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Volunteer firefighters may sleep at a volunteer station or respond from home. We have three volunteer stations: one each in Milton, Lake Tapps and South Prairie. The volunteer response varies based on their availability (primary job, family, etc.).

24/7 staffing with career firefighters

Many people ask why we send so many units to a 911 call. The number of units dispatched is based on the number of responders and type of equipment needed to mitigate the emergency.

This is determined on the information obtained from the caller by the dispatcher.

The number of on-duty firefighters play into the number of units dispatched. With only two firefighters per engine, we must dispatch three engines in order to manage an emergency that will take six firefighters. If we had three firefighters on each engine, only two fire engines would be needed to respond to that same incident.

Now this doesn’t mean we can move firefighters around and do with one less engine in our fleet. We still are concerned about response times, so we can’t reduce the number of engine companies.

What’s the risk of understaffing?

First and foremost, the risk to you is that the care provided or the actions necessary to mitigate a problem, such as a fire or removing a trapped person from a vehicle, take longer to accomplish. Time is critical when responding to an emergency. Every minute allows a fire to grow exponentially or a rescue or critical medical care to be delayed.

Both state and federal laws require at least three firefighters to be on scene in order to conduct a rescue during a fire or other hazardous response. With our current staffing levels, we need two fire engines on scene before we can attempt to rescue a person trapped in a fire. Because it takes longer to get a second engine to the scene, this kind of delay that can cost lives. It’s is this situation that concerns me the most.

Secondly, it’s wasteful and dangerous to send so many units to a single alarm. It costs money to send two fire engines, when only one may be needed. Furthermore, our ability to answer subsequent alarms is hampered. Once a number of units are dispatched to a major alarm such as a structure fire, vehicle rescue, or cardiac arrests, we have limited resources to address other calls for help. As a result, we frequently must call other fire departments for mutual aid.

Yes, this is what mutual aid is for, but it takes a significant amount of time for them to respond to our area and that delay could mean difference between life and death.

Third, is the risk to our firefighters. Understaffing places firefighters in a position where they may attempt to perform a task without enough resources on scene. This often leads to firefighter injuries, or worse.

What are we doing to address the issue?

We have adjusted some budget areas to increase staffing at our Sumner station to three firefighters per shift so that we can safely operate the ladder truck. This will provide adequate staffing at one of our six stations, but leaves our other five engine companies understaffed.

Standard budget growth might allow us to add one or two firefighters from time to time, but will not be enough to address the larger needs of proper staffing. With three 24-hour shifts to cover per engine, it takes three new firefighters to bring a single engine up to the minimum standard staffing of three firefighters per engine. We will need a total of 15 firefighters to bring five engine companies up to proper strength.

You may have heard that we are hiring four firefighters in 2016. These firefighters are being hired just to maintain our current numbers. They are filling vacancies created by normal attrition.

We do plan to increase our volunteer firefighter staffing as well. Next spring, we will recruit 10 to 12 volunteers and begin their initial training in the fall. The recruits will take the EMT (emergency medical technician) class this fall, and receive their fire training in the first part of 2017. The cost to train and outfit these new volunteers is approximately $68,000. This does not include ongoing training and equipment needs.

Just to maintain volunteer numbers, we will likely need to recruit the same number every year.

The volunteer fire service has a high turnover. Many volunteers leave once they are hired as full-time firefighters. Since our volunteers must reside within our service area in order to be recognized as responders by the insurance ratings bureau, some volunteers leave because they move out of our district. Other volunteers leave because of family or job demands or simply because the time commitment required to serve as a volunteer is too great.

There is no quick or easy solution to fixing this issue. Meanwhile, the 911 call volume continues to put pressure on our fire and EMS system every year.

We are committed to responding to your emergencies as quickly and effectively as possible. We must train for every kind of emergency and maintain our equipment, units and stations so that we are there when you need us the most.