The Explainer: How many firefighters ...

The Explainer: How many firefighters ...

Michele Ellson

Why does the Alameda Fire Department send a fire engine to a medical call? And how many police officers show up to handle a car accident? The Alamedan asked local police and fire leaders how many people they deploy for a host of different incidents, and why.

Both departments have faced questions and even criticism about what some see as an outsize response to car accidents, medical calls and other incidents. But representatives from both departments said there are good reasons for their response levels.

“We’re not just rolling the dice. We make a conscious effort to be as efficient as we can be with the people and resources we have,” Police Chief Paul Rolleri said.

Rolleri said he’d rather send too many people to an incident than too few, and he and Alameda Fire Captain Jim Colburn said both agencies are quick to send away anyone who’s not needed. Colburn said his department’s goal is to get fires, medical and other emergencies under control quickly.

National standards address response levels for many of the calls the local fire department handles, while others were crafted around the experiences of Alameda’s fire department and other departments in the Bay Area, Colburn said. But the police response is more flexible, based on the circumstances of each incident, Rolleri said. In some cases, officers “self-dispatch” to incidents if they’re nearby, while a supervisor’s job is to put police no longer needed to handle a call back out on the street.

Below is a list of seven different types of incidents handled by the police and fire departments, along with the number of responders they send to each and the reasons why.

Car accident: Car accidents draw both a police and a fire response – firefighters to handle rescue duty and medical care and police to investigate, control the scene and direct traffic. A vehicle-on-pedestrian accident draws a ladder truck or engine and an ambulance from the fire department – five people total – while a two-car crash draws an engine, ladder truck and ambulance, Alameda Fire’s Colburn said; the engine has water in the event a car catches fire, while the ladder truck holds rescue equipment.

If someone needs to be extracted from a wrecked vehicle, nine people are sent, Colburn said – a group that includes a supervisor, medics, and firefighters to operate rescue equipment that opens up wrecked cars and work a hose line in case of fire.

Police, meanwhile, will send two officers to an injury collision – each in his or her own car – though more will be sent depending on the amount of damage done, the location of the accident and the time of day it takes place. A three-car accident that takes place at a busy intersection during rush hour, Rolleri said, will draw a far larger response from police who will take statements, make sure cars get towed and control traffic, he said.

“You can’t have two cops doing that, and doing it well,” he said. “In reality, everybody’s got a specific task to perform when they’re there. And when they’re done, they’re gone.”

Burglary: The Alameda Police Department will respond to a burglary with as many as four officers if the burglar is still in the house or nearby, in order to set up a perimeter around the home or block where the burglary is taking place. More officers could be sent if they’re available to search yards for a suspect, Rolleri said. He said police got a call a few months ago about an in-progress burglary on the 600 block of Santa Clara Avenue and that dispatchers “sent everyone working” to that call; the burglar was still in the house.

House fire: The Alameda Fire Department sends a minimum of 18 people to attack a one-alarm residential fire: Three engines and two ladder trucks staffed with three firefighters apiece, a two-medic ambulance and a battalion chief. That’s three more than the National Fire Protection Association standard of 15, but it’s a number Colburn said he thinks has helped the department douse fires more quickly and effectively.

The additional firefighters were added on a trial basis in 2004, after Alameda Fire researched what other Bay Area departments were sending. “We’ve had less multiple alarm fires, and we’re getting fires out instead of them getting bigger,” Colburn said. “It’s a real effective response level for us and I believe it’s worked well.”

Additional alarms draw more staff and equipment; with an on-duty staff of 25 per shift, a second alarm typically puts all hands on a fire, with firefighters from other, off-Island departments backing up Alameda on other calls.

Domestic disturbance/assault: Rolleri said two officers are typically dispatched on a domestic violence or assault call, though either could call for backup. “If a neighbor calls 911, and says there’s screaming and glass breaking, probably a third one’s going to go,” he said. Additional officers could also be called if a fight breaks out.

Medical call: Colburn said the department sends an engine or ladder truck – whichever is closer – and an ambulance to medical calls, which puts five people on scene – two paramedics, a supervisor and some emergency medical technicians. The reason, he said, is because the department’s engines and trucks are typically closer and can get to the calls faster, because there are more of them (six fire companies spread across four stations, versus three ambulances).

“We want to send the closest firefighters to the scene,” Colburn said.

If the department doesn’t have an ambulance available to transport a patient, off-Island resources are brought in.

Bank robbery: The department sends two officers and a supervisor to a bank robbery “at a minimum,” Rolleri said. “Depending on what if any updated information we’re given, we could send the cavalry. We could send everybody,” he said.

“If they’re in the bank or running down Park Street, that’s going to generate a bigger response,” Rolleri said, with officers self-dispatching if they are nearby.

Ultimately the call could draw four officers to watch a perimeter around the crime scene and “a couple of cops to go through the yards until we’ve found (the suspects),” Rolleri said.

Water rescue: Colburn said the minimum response for a water rescue is 15 people, a number that includes swimmers, spotters, an ambulance, a supervisor and a boat crew; the response can depend on what the call is, where it is, and how far out into the water the distressed parties are. Three fire engines are sent to the call, one towing a boat; a ladder truck (used by spotters to see out over the water), an ambulance for medical response and a duty chief to oversee the call also respond. The department sends swimmers on torpedo buoys or boards for rescues closer to shore and on rubber rescue boats further out, and will send the department’s newly available fireboat for calls even further from shore. While the rubber rescue boats can easily be launched into the Estuary, there isn’t a boat launch off Alameda’s beaches, so the department sends six firefighters to put them into the water.

Colburn said that when firefighters go on water rescue calls, they often don’t know what they’ll be facing when they arrive or how quickly they’ll be able to spot someone who may not be in the same spot a caller saw them in.

“When we leave the station, we don’t know,” Colburn said. “We want to send enough to make what’s happening stop for the person in distress.”

Comments

Submitted by Ken Harrison (not verified) on Tue, Dec 10, 2013

Well, the justifications are well and good, but that doesn't mean that the rationales are supportable. The simple act of allowing "first responders" (i.e., the paramedics) to call in a fire truck if needed would save the costs associated with the automatic deployment of a fire engine alongside the first response unit. And this is not a big city. It can't take more than ten minutes to travel from the Fernside to the Point, with several fire stations in between.

I have been involved in many a labor negotiation, and even so I wish to state I believe this accommodation to be the result of favorable labor contracts issued to the "first responders" in return for the favor of their support in previous (and perhaps forthcoming) elections.

Color me cynical.

Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Tue, Dec 10, 2013

The statement below does not match what I see on a daily basis. I live near the station at Pacific and Webster. What I see quite often is a fire engine and ambulance following one close behind the other, or an ambulance with a fire engine behind. I almost never see an ambulance by itself. Every medical call appears to have five responders. There needs to be a more cost effective way of providing this service. Shouldn't dispatch know if there is an ambulance available? Has the City commissioned an independent study to determine if outcomes would be any different if there were fewer than five responders to every medical call that comes in?

"Medical call: Colburn said the department sends an engine or ladder truck – whichever is closer – and an ambulance to medical calls, which puts five people on scene – two paramedics, a supervisor and some emergency medical technicians. The reason, he said, is because the department’s engines and trucks are typically closer and can get to the calls faster, because there are more of them (six fire companies spread across four stations, versus three ambulances).

“We want to send the closest firefighters to the scene,” Colburn said.

If the department doesn’t have an ambulance available to transport a patient, off-Island resources are brought in."

Submitted by Tony Reid (not verified) on Wed, Dec 11, 2013

I'd be interested in seeing how these response levels compare to those that existed 20, 30, or 40 years ago. Alameda has about the same population it did in the 60's and 70's yet seems to have a LOT more police and firefighters and seems to spend a much larger % of the city budget on such services

Submitted by Cameron (not verified) on Thu, Dec 12, 2013

This is not concurrent with the responses I have seen in the past 5 years, out of 17 years of living here. It is a gross undercalculation of the amount of responding officers sent to the scene of an incident. I have seen as 4-6 cars respond every time I see an altercation or incident on the street. Which is, mind you, not very often. Thanks for the predictable lack of transparency, APD.

Submitted by Really? (not verified) on Fri, Dec 13, 2013

I have seen, on multiple occasions, at least 4 police cars responding to a person shoplifting food from Nob Hill Foods. Having seen the person taking the food, there was no reason one officer couldn't handle the situation. This appears to be wasteful but if the police department has an explanation, I'd love to hear it.

As far as the fire fighters, when there is an emergency situation, why wouldn't you want as many trained folks as needed to help the affected people? If I had a medical emergency,mid want the whole department to respond if that was necessary.

Since the majority of the time, we see police speed trapping and writing tickets, it's not fair to lump the fire fighters in with them. The fire fighters are there to help us, not raise city funds by writing tickets .

Submitted by Jerry Wagner (not verified) on Sat, Dec 14, 2013

I just read in the Sun or somewhere that the City of Alameda charges $2,000 for each medical call. Doesn't that cover the extra cost?

Submitted by Neil (not verified) on Tue, Dec 17, 2013

The emergency crews are being paid whether they're on a call or not, so why note send them out if studies and experience of the professionals determine it is a good idea.
I love all these anecdotes from commenters who have seen a few incidents and think they know better.

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