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Added staff helps decrease Auburn Fire Department’s response time

Program funding new firefighters hurt by federal budget cuts
By: Jon Schultz, Journal Staff Writer
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Auburn Fire Chief Mark D’Ambrogi is hoping the highest staffing level the department has ever had will equate to some of the quickest response times it has ever seen.

Early returns have him encouraged.

The Auburn Fire Department added five full-time firefighters in October 2012 through a $681,900 federal grant, allowing it to improve response times and efficiency by creating a two-person rescue unit – eliminating the need to break out the big engine for all medical calls.

The rescue unit is capable of handling all emergency medical incidents that the engine would normally cover, and it costs the city about $30 less per call when factoring in the cost to send a third person, a station officer, out with the engine, according to D’Ambrogi.

The savings add up, as 66 percent of all the department’s calls are for medical response.

Running the second unit is possible because of the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant, or SAFER Grant, the city received to hire the five firefighters for a temporary, two-year term.

But the early positive reports come with a disclaimer that it may not last forever, especially in the face of federal sequestration spending cuts that have slashed the program servicing the grant by $117 million, D’Ambrogi said.

That means when Auburn applies to receive the grant again in 2014, it will face increased competition for a decreased funding pool, he said.

“It just kind of lessens your odds,” D’Ambrogi said.

If it’s not available, Auburn would have to see if its budget would allow retaining the firefighters.

“Typically, in the past, cities who have received SAFER grants continue to receive SAFER grants, and that may not be the case with the recent budget issues associated with the federal government,” Auburn Administrative Services Director Andy Heath said.

But for the time being, D’Ambrogi said the additional staffing presents an opportunity, and the department is doing its best to take advantage of it.

Currently, the department is able to staff a second unit just 67 percent of the time because one of the firefighters hired through the SAFER Grant took a full-time position in Sacramento, D’Ambrogi said. Brendan Hogan’s replacement will start on April 1, and then the department will have two units 100 percent of the time, D’Ambrogi said.

In the three months after the new firefighters came aboard, the department had 347 medical calls, responding to 137 of them with the rescue unit and the remaining 210 with the fire engine unit, according to D’Ambrogi’s report.

Emergency medical calls accounted for two-thirds of the department’s total 1,824 calls in 2012. The cost to dispatch the rescue unit on a medical call is $70.43, compared to $101.06 for the fire engine unit, according to the report that factors in personnel costs.

Although average total response times for all calls increased by 15 seconds to 6:28 from 2011 to 2012, response times to Code 3 calls, the most serious incidents, decreased by 16 seconds to 4:38.

Where D’Ambrogi thinks the second unit will make the biggest difference is in responding to consecutive calls where one unit is already out and the second unit is in the city waiting to act.

“Our response times this last year went down, and I think that is partly due because we had two units in the city at any given time (after the SAFER hires) that could pick up those calls,” D’Ambrogi said, “rather than waiting for a neighbor (department) that is an additional four to eight minutes out.”

That extra time can make all the difference, as a fire can reach its “flash over” point where it is at its most intense stage between six and 10 minutes after it is ignited, D’Ambrogi said.

 

Jon Schultz can be reached at jons@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_AJNews