The Explainer: Alameda's many fire reports

The Explainer: Alameda's many fire reports

Michele Ellson
Alameda fire reports

City officials have released a quintet of reports authored over the past eight years examining the services provided by the Alameda Fire Department that look at everything from calls handled and response times to staffing and the spacing of fire stations, nearly all done as city officials sought out ways to trim costs in the face of a challenging economy.

Critics of the department and of the cost of the services it provides have said they’d like to see staffing and other cuts based on a 2009 study from ICMA Consulting that recommended shuttering one or two of the city’s fire stations, trimming staff and focusing the department’s efforts of prevention and mitigation of fires and medical emergencies instead of responding to them. City leaders, who said they released the remaining reports in the face of what they called inaccuracies offered by some who have spoken out on the issue, said they wanted to give the public the chance to see what they’ve got, though City Manager John Russo said that after reading the rest he’s convinced the city’s existing fire stations should remain open.

Russo said he’s not sure why the city conducted four studies on essentially the same fire-related topics over the past eight years; he said city staffers will read the studies and try to draw conclusions on what if any changes should be made at the fire department.

In the meantime, we at The Alamedan have also read all 447 pages of the studies, and we’re offering a synopsis of each below. If you’d like to see the studies yourself, they’re available on the city’s website.

Citygate Abbreviated Deployment Analysis to Determine Fire Station Coverage

Conducted by: Citygate Associates LLC

Date: September 2004, with follow-up reports in April 2007

Purpose: The purpose of the initial report was to develop standards of fire department response coverage and fire crew deployment needs as the department “continues to evolve under the stress of uncertain economic times,” which included efforts to analyze fire station locations and to develop a formal response time policy. A pair of follow-up reports examined relocation options for the city’s fire stations and in particular, the impact of closing the West End’s Fire Station 2 and/or relocating a single or combined mid-Island Fire Station 3.

Key findings/recommendations: The report’s authors found that Alameda had a “capable department” with a deployment plan that historically served the city well, though they found its response times to be at the “outer limits” of acceptable performance due to dispatch and turnout times that exceeded a national standard. They said the city’s fire department had adequate resources to manage smaller fires and a moderate rescue situation or multiple medical emergencies but that it could be challenged by a serious fire. They also recommended against a proposal to combine fire stations 2 and 3, saying coverage of Bay Farm Island would suffer – especially when the department was handling multiple calls, which was the case 37 percent of the time. One of the follow-up reports reiterated a recommendation that Fire Station 2 remain open.

Interesting factoids: The report’s authors found that the Alameda Fire Department met the national standard for initial response times of six minutes 83 percent of the time Island-wide and 74 percent of the time on Bay Farm Island, below the standard of a six-minute initial response 90 percent of the time; a fire can engulf a room in five to 10 minutes, while heart attack patients begin suffering brain damage between four and six minutes after suffering a heart attack, damage which becomes irreversible after 10 minutes. That said, they also criticized the department for supplying poor data and recommended it put better data and records management systems in place. At that time the department handled an average of 15.62 incidents a day, with 74 percent of those being medical calls. In studies of potential changes in fire station locations, Citygate said the best place for a new Station 3 – which the department abandoned as seismically unsafe a decade ago – would be on Encinal Avenue between Sherman and Morton streets (the city had considered the Alameda Belt Line property).

Alameda County EMS System Review

Conducted by: Fitch & Associates LLC

Date: February 2008

Purpose: The report’s purpose was to review and assess the county’s emergency medical services system and propose changes in advance of a request for proposals for a new county ambulance provider; Alameda, which has its own ambulance service, only figured in tangentially.

Key findings/recommendations: The report’s authors recommended that Alameda County EMS officials become stronger advocates for and regulators of emergency medical services countywide and that funding allocations to different cities should be based in part on performance, though they said that a new ambulance contract couldn’t reflect all the changes. They also noted poor interaction between the county EMS agency and local fire departments and suggested the agency work to rebuild communication and trust.

Interesting factoids: Local fire officials complained to the report’s authors that the county’s then-ambulance contractor, AMR, relied too heavily on local fire departments for mutual aid, though they lacked the data to prove this was the case.

ICMA Data Assessment Report and Operational Assessment

Conducted by: ICMA Consulting Services

Date: May 2009

Purpose: The report looked at the fire department’s service delivery and offered recommendations for the future.

Key findings/recommendations: The report’s authors recommended the city close Fire Station 3 or Station 5 at Alameda Point (which city officials did, in 2009) until the Point is developed; they suggested the department shift its focus from responding to fires and medical emergencies to prevention and mitigation. The report recommended the department focus its efforts on protecting lives instead of property; prevention and mitigation efforts included installing sprinklers in buildings and placing defibrillators in public buildings and police cars, and educating the public on health and fire safety issues.

Interesting factoids: The report even recommended the city reconsider using the term “firefighter,” since most of the calls the department takes are medical; they suggested using “safety specialist” in its place.

TriData Report (draft)

Conducted by: TriData Division, System Planning Corporation

Date: June 2010

Purpose: The study examined the effectiveness and financial viability of the city’s ambulance service and looked at whether city leaders should consider contracting the service out to Alameda County. It also examined the financial and political liabilities the city could face if it failed to pay an outstanding $839,000 assessment for trauma and other EMS services to the county.

Key findings/recommendations: Only a draft of the study was released; its authors said that Alameda Fire provided “excellent” ambulance service and that the city’s current service model was the “most appropriate” even though the department only collected 40 percent of the nearly $6.1 million it was paying to provide ambulance service and data on treatment efforts – when available – showed varied outcomes. Ultimately the study’s findings were a moot point because both the county’s outgoing ambulance provider, AMR, and its incoming provider, Paramedics Plus, said they weren’t interested in offering ambulance service in Alameda; the report’s authors said such a move would not be financially beneficial to them and said unspecified “political issues” could also make a private operator reluctant to set up shop here.

Interesting factoids: The report’s authors said Alameda’s firefighters responded to medical calls in 6 minutes and 44 seconds, 90 percent of the time, slower than a national response standard of 6 minutes, 90 percent of the time but faster than the county contract standard of 8 and a half minutes, 90 percent of the time. But they also found that some of the department’s units took longer to respond: The ambulance from Fire Station 4 on Bay Farm Island, for example, responded to 90 percent of its calls after over 12 minutes (average response times were lower). The report also recommended against a fire department proposal to take on non-emergency transport, saying the move could take emergency responders away from those duties and could prove costlier than expected in the future. But the City Council recently approved such a plan, and it went into operation earlier this month.

ISO Report

Conducted by: Insurance Services Office, Inc. (ISO)

Date: February 2012

Purpose: The report is to be used as a tool by city leaders when “planning, budgeting and justifying fire protection improvements,” and insurers use the data to determine the risk of fire losses – and the subsequent cost of property insurance.

Key findings/recommendations: Alameda achieved a public protection classification of two on a scale of one to 10, with one demonstrating exemplary service and 10 meaning a department hasn’t met minimum recognition criteria. The finding, which measures a department’s reporting and dispatch capabilities, staffing and equipment and its access to water to put out a fire, put Alameda in the top 1 percent of departments in the country and the top 6 percent in California.

Interesting factoids: ISO’s report found that Alameda had fewer ladder companies, engines and dispatch operators than recommended, and less training.