By Chris Boehringer
Troy Fire Department Chief
During the 2014 budget process, Troy City Council asked that I present an analysis of fire department staffing. In a comprehensive memo dated April 22, 2014, I made the following recommendations (emphasis has been added here):
a. Keep our current level of 38 full-time uniformed paramedic staffing with no future reduction in full-time personnel to ensure that all EMS calls are answered with two paramedics on each ambulance every time;
b. Add enough professionally trained part-time fire fighters who have Emergency Medical Technician certification so that we can increase our minimum staffing level each day from eight to 12 fire fighters; and
c. Continue on an annual basis to analyze and monitor workload and make staff adjustments accordingly.
I believed in April and I continue to believe now that we need to increase our readiness at our three fire stations in case we have a serious fire event. I also continue to believe that our ambulances should be staffed with full-time paramedics. At no time have I ever advocated for, suggested or recommended a reduction in the current full time staff. To increase from eight to 12 fire fighters per day using full-time staff would cost an estimated $1.6 million per year. The equivalent part-time costs are less than one-third of that cost. We’ve been asked “Is there truly a lack of funds?” The short answer is an adamant YES. My recommendation memo included Chart X, which is a five-year financial projection of the estimated cost of adding part-time staff. At the end of five years, the city auditor estimates that the city general fund should still have a $3 million balance. However, if full-time staff were funded instead, that balance would be a negative $1.6 million. Obviously, the city cannot operate with a negative balance and it would have been irresponsible and unsustainable for me to recommend full-time staff. That is especially true when it has been proven that part-time staffing works in many departments as a very positive service enhancement to citizens.
It has been suggested that adding part time personnel to the current full time staff of the Troy Fire Department would result in a reduction in the EMS services provided to the citizens of this community and the three townships we serve. This is terribly inaccurate. We will continue to respond with two paramedics on each ambulance. With the addition of part time personnel we will be able to supplement our ambulance responses with an additional firefighter/EMT. This will only increase service to our citizens, since a third set of hands will allow an EMT to drive while two paramedics – not one, are in the back of the ambulance providing treatment to the patient.
Although city council never asked for an equipment and vehicle analysis as part of my staffing review, there have been questions raised as to the performance and reliability of our current fire apparatus, rescue equipment and personal protective equipment. All apparatus, fire or EMS, receive a safety inspection each year and undergo daily vehicle checks. Any problems are immediately corrected and if they can’t be, then city council has always funded replacements. Each fire vehicle is tested each year, as well. All current fire apparatus have met the required benchmarks and are in good working order. As with any piece of equipment, mechanical issues will arise. When this happens these issues are investigated and the appropriate corrective action is taken. We have gone as far as having an independent contractor inspect and declare “roadworthy” one of our current engines.
While apparatus is depreciated over 20 years, it has been suggested that the maximum lifespan of a frontline engine is twenty (20) years. I can tell you that in my research I have found no hard evidence to support this statement. While it is true that much of our fleet is aging, all have been maintained to standard. We are very diligent in the budgeting of enough funds to repair problems and extend the life of our vehicles. We have an estimated schedule of vehicle replacements but we do not adhere to a “firm” replacement schedule. It makes absolutely no sense to replace a vehicle that is inspected, certified and roadworthy just because it reaches a certain age. These vehicles can cost anywhere from $450,000 to over $1 million each depending on what is being replaced. As for other items such as rescue equipment and personal protective equipment, in 2014 we have budgeted over $56,000 for items including turnout gear, boots, gloves, nomex hoods, replacement SCBA face pieces, tools, hose, nozzles, etc. Suggestions that we need to spend money to replace more are just meant to cloud the real issue, which is providing enough staffing for fire response.
There have also been questions concerning the hiring process and the qualifications of part time personnel. We will follow the state laws regarding testing, screening and the hiring of part time personnel. Candidates will undergo a physical agility test or have a current CPAT (Candidate Physical Ability Test) card, receive a medical exam, criminal history check, drug screen, CVSA (polygraph), reference check, credit check, driving abstract and a personal interview. As you can see, they all receive background checks. All candidates will be certified as Level II firefighters and either an EMT or paramedic.
Those opposing my recommendation to hire part-time staff have questioned their training. I can proudly say that 12 of the last 14 full-time staff the Troy Fire Department has hired were working as, or previously worked as part-time staff. After hiring into the Troy Fire Department, 7 of our staff worked as part-time staff for other departments, including four who continue to do so. Each part-time fire fighter we hire will have access to all training made available to the full time employees.
I have been accused of not communicating with the 35 front line staff of fire fighters and Platoon Commanders. I was tasked, as the Fire Chief, to provide an analysis. As a command and control organization, the responsibility for that analysis, the recommendations that followed, and all decisions rests with me and no one else. When I was sworn in as chief, that’s the oath I took and which I try to uphold every day. For this recommendation, however, I did communicate with my staff. Not only was my command staff of assistant chiefs heavily involved in the research, but I reviewed my recommendations with the then-Union President prior to submitting the analysis to City Council. To include the Platoon Commanders on my command staff team would have placed them in a position of conflict, since they directly supervise the very personnel in which they share union representation.
As a result of the on-going dialogue, I recently modified my recommendation to City Council to add part-time staff in steps, rather than all at once. We should start with two part-time EMT’s and develop our procedures and regulations around them. That would allow my assistant chiefs and me to personally monitor the performance and integration of the part-time staff into the department, without spending time, effort and funds to try to add 24 or more part-timers to the department all at once. This is a much more prudent, cost effective and responsible way to bring this positive change to the department.
In closing, maintaining our current full time staff with no further reduction and adding part time firefighter/EMT’s to increase our daily staffing level is fully supported by the mayor and the director of Public Service and Safety. I was asked by council to do a staffing analysis, identify any deficiencies and recommend ways to address concerns. I truly believe that what I have provided addresses our fire suppression readiness, maintains and improves our high level of emergency medical service, and does so in a way that is financially prudent for our taxpayers. I stand behind my recommendations.
— Chief Chris Boehringer