Safety analysis results show JCFD in dire financial straits

Becky Campbell • May 12, 2014 at 11:13 PM

The Johnson City Fire Department budget is at such a critical point that there soon may be a tough decision for city leaders — increase funding or reduce services to city residents, according to the firefighter at the helm.

The issues range from aging turnout gear — helmets and the protective clothing firefighters wear to enter a burning building — to the high-mileage fire engines needed to fight a fire. There are also concerns about the infrastructure of the fire stations, staffing levels on trucks and the lack of accreditation, an internationally recognized standard of accountability that many fire departments in the area have obtained and maintained for a number of years.

“It’s hard to continue running the department on the budget we are and (with) the call volume we have. The only alternative I know is influx the budget or cut back on services,” said Fire Chief Mark Scott.

“We really need (help),” he said. “For the last few years we’ve been asked to cut the budget by percentages and we’re at the point there’s really nothing left to cut. The fire department’s suffering,” he said.

Scott said he encouraged having a public safety analysis conducted by the International City/County Management Association. It reviewed every aspect of the city’s fire and police departments, Washington County/Johnson City EMS and the Washington County Emergency Communications District, more commonly called 911. The ICMA teams looked at facilities, equipment — from uniforms to vehicles and everything in between — policy and procedures, hierarchy structure, planning and budgeting, staffing levels, duty assignments and promotion opportunities.

“It’s sometimes good for someone from the outside to come in and look at the department,” Scott said. “Some of the things in the study are, to us, old news.”

One thing he’s talking about is the replacement of aging fire trucks. There are different types of fire trucks — an engine, also called a pumper; ladder trucks, which could be an aerial tower, platform or the telesquirt; HazMat trucks and brush engines — and each have a general lifespan.

That lifespan is 15 years for frontline engines and an additional five years as a reserve engine and 20 years for a ladder truck with an additional five years as a reserve ladder.

In the last five years, the JCFD has received funding, from the city and a federal grant, to replace two ladder trucks and one engine. Right now, the JCFD is within five years of needing to replace three engines and six years for a new ladder truck. At today’s prices, that’s $2.18 million and for now, the money is not being squirreled away as it should be.

The public safety analysis was clear in its observation of the lack of apparatus funding.

“Due to funding constraints and the city’s funding prioritization, the JCFD vehicle replacement program has not been funded to the extent recommended by fire administration,” the report indicates.

Scott is quick to confirm that and said the fire department puts the funding request in its budget each year, and each year it’s sliced away.

“The apparatus replacement, we continue to put in for new equipment,” he said. “The two ladder trucks, we were very fortunate to get those vehicles, but now we’re looking at the pumpers, the replacement of a lot of those.”

A new pumper, he said, will cost around $450,000. The two ladder trucks purchased last year were $830,000 each and $60,000 of that came from a federal grant. Scott has asked for a new pumper in the 2014-15 budget proposal, but he isn’t holding out much hope it will make the final list of funded items.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of work done through the grant process, in particular by firefighter Kevin Haynes. That has offset a lot of the costs in the fire department. We’ve got sprinkler systems on grants, turnout gear, SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus), You name it, we’ve got it,” Scott said.

“A lot of that equipment is quickly entering the end of its useful life and the grants aren’t there anymore. A lot of the things we’ve done to provide a safer environment for our employees and even get a fire truck with, those grants are going away very quickly. We put in for grants last year and didn’t get a one. This year it’s looking bleak also. The grant funding that we’ve got from the federal government is really evaporating. That will impact our ability to move forward with a lot of the things we’ve done in the past.”

Scott said fire trucks aren’t the only updates the department needs.

“There’s a lot of other things than fire trucks that we need. We need 100 fire helmets today. Our helmets were bought on a grant. A lot of the helmets have exceeded their 10-year life and it will cost $40,000 to replace those helmets. This coming year, we’ll see a lot of our turnout gear reach its 10-year life span and it will need to be replaced. You’re talking a minimum of $1,500 a set,” Scott said.

“We’re struggling to clothe the fire department with their uniforms and turnout gear.”

In the ICMA analysis, reviewers addressed other issues, including the number of response units sent on a call and the staffing on those units.

Scott said when there is a fire, the goal is to get 14 firefighters on scene. To do that, multiple units are dispatched because most are two-person trucks.

“Some of our equipment has three, some has two personnel. We strive to get to three, we want to have three people on each one. Staffing is very important. We send a lot of equipment to a fire.

If you have a fire, we’ll send three engines and two ladder trucks. That’s in order to get the number of people there. We could do it with less equipment if we had more people on that equipment,” Scott said.

Fire trucks — although fewer in number — are also dispatched, along with EMS units, to medical calls. To offset the costs associated with putting a large vehicle in action, the analysis suggested the purchase of smaller, lighter chassis vehicles.

“There are advantages and disadvantages to that. Of course, the advantage is it’s a whole lot cheaper to move a smaller vehicle than it is a larger vehicle. But also, it takes the crew away from the fire apparatus. They are committed to the call until the call is over. If we’re sent out on an emergency at your home, the crew’s committed to that emergency until that one’s over. The good thing about (smaller vehicles), the maintenance is cheaper and also the initial cost. We think we would have $40,000 to $50,000 in this vehicle, so that would have to be on the front end. We’re not against a pilot program to see how one would work out. But right now with our budget, it’s just not something we think will mature,” he said.

A disadvantage of a smaller vehicle for medical response is where to house it, he said.

“A lot of our stations that are really busy that could utilize these vehicles are really small. Station 4 over by the VA is the busiest station in the city. It’s a small station as far as housing the vehicle in the engine room. The vehicle has to be kept in temperature controlled environment because you have medical supplies there. I look at it right now pretty openly. It may be a good thing. We’d just have to try it and see. If (the city) is willing to put up the money, we’re willing to try it.”

Another shortfall within the fire department infrastructure is the lack of auxiliary power in the event of an electrical outage. But it’s not because Scott and others before him haven’t tried to get funding for back-up generators.

“It has been talked about, it has been put it the budget before. Numerous times,” Scott said.

“We feel like it’s an essential part. If you were here for the Blizzard of ’93 you would have understood, if you were in a fire station, how important auxiliary power is. The city was pretty much blacked out,” he said.

But a power outage is no excuse for emergency services to stop responding to calls for help. The only back-up power at the city’s nine fire stations only keeps the radio communication system operating.

“Emergency services have to continue on. During disasters, it’s important that fire stations continue to function and if you think about it — we’re just like your home. Our refrigerator, our heating and air conditioning ... all of that is dependent on electrical services provided by TVA or the Johnson City Power Board.

“During cold weather, our vehicles can’t withstand temperatures below 32 degrees very long because we have water. Water freezes at 32 degrees. If we’re in a fire station for an extended amount of time where the engine room got cold,” it could cause problems for the trucks. Even the large doors on the engine room bays are electrical, although there is a way to open them manually.

“During the blizzard we actually had to bring in propane heaters. The negative side to that is carbon monoxide. We went through it before, but it was difficult. It’s part of the infrastructure of the city that we need to be able to continue to operate during adverse conditions. And it should be a point of refuge for the citizens.”

One thing the JCFD has not obtained that Scott said would be an advantage for city residents is accreditation by an international accrediting agency.

“Yes, I’m 100 percent for accreditation,” Scott said when asked about the process. “There are some budgetary constraints to getting involved in it. If I look at the departments around us that are accredited — Asheville, N.C., Bristol, Va., Kingsport.

“We’re all for it. It looks at the fire department from the inside out and how we provide our service and the services we provide, making sure we’re providing what the community wants and doing it very efficiently,” he said.

“There are advantages to it because it really looks at the department and what we’re doing. For instance, fire prevention, what we’re doing there, how we’re doing it and how efficient it is. The accreditation process has a lot of pluses for the community and the fire department.”

Scott said he hopes there will be some changes and improvements come of the $90,000 study.

“If we’re going to spend this much money to get recommendations then I would certainly hope,” some could be implemented, he said.

The JCFD operates nine fire stations and employs 120 people. The 2013-14 operating budget was $9.256 million.

Follow Becky Campbell on Twitter @CampbellinCourt. Like her on Facebook: www.facebook.com/BeckyCampbellJCPress.

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