Tacoma Fire Department study proposes costly changes

A study of the Tacoma Fire Department focusing on where to locate new fire stations in the future and other improvements recommends spending $70 million to implement such changes over the next 10 years.

“We’ve tried to identify what will be the top five priorities and go from there,” Eileen Lewis, Tacoma Fire Chief, told the City Council during Tuesday’s study session, noting the city’s already tough budget situation.

“As you know, we always want to do things better,” she said.

The department’s top five priorities include adding a two-person emergency medical services vehicle to the South/Southeast part of the city; evaluating options in Northeast Tacoma, possibly adding an emergency services vehicle or contracting with Fire District 13 to expand coverage in the Browns Point and Dash Point areas; adding a two-person emergency medical services vehicle in downtown Tacoma and building a new downtown station in 2015; consolidating fire stations 6 and 15 into one station in the vicinity of Highway 509 and Port of Tacoma Road; and retrofitting the fireboat Defiance and placing it at Fire Station 5 with full-time staffing.

These recommendations – just five among a total of 42 in the report – were the results of a study conducted by TriData, a division of Systems Planning Corp. out of Virginia. The comprehensive examination of the fire department pointed out what the city is doing right, as well as areas that need improvement. The study looked at facilities, staffing levels, response times and workloads.

Philip Schaenman, president of TriData, characterized the Tacoma Fire Department as a “smart fire department” with “good troops.”

The fire department and emergency medical services operations include 16 active fire stations, 410 uniformed firefighters, 16 engines, four trucks, five medic units, five specialty units, one cross-staffed fireboat and two batallion chiefs.

“I’m convinced you can to that fine tuning,” Schaenman said of implementing the changes recommended in the study. “You’re starting from an excellent base of information.”

While the study looked at the placement of facilities and units with regard to maintaining and/or improving response times, it did not evaluate the conditions of the facilities.

With regard to staffing levels, the report noted the department has two batallion chiefs, with one overseeing 12 units and eight stations and the other overseeing 13 units and eight stations. The normal span, the report states, is five to six stations. The report recommends adding one batallion chief now and adding a second one in 2008.

“Right now, the span of control is not appropriate,” Schaenman said.

When it comes to dispatch times, the department is doing a poor job, Schaenman said. The Tacoma Fire Department has an average dispatch time of 1.92 minutes, the report says, compared to a 50- to 60-second standard. Turnout time for the department is 1.45 minutes, versus a goal of 60 seconds. There was some positive news, however, as drive times came in at 3.65 minutes, which is under the goal of 4 minutes.

Schaenman called that “remarkably good.”

Another focus of the report was the department’s workload, which is expected to increase in the coming years. According to population projections, density is expected to increase 50 to 100 percent in the most crowded areas. There is a 25 percent projected increase overall in the department’s service area. The department’s current workload is up 31 percent from 1996, the report says. The high workload is a big concern for obvious reasons.

“We’re talking about the likelihood of the unit being in the station when a call comes in,” Schaenman said.

All of the report’s recommendations should be seen as a starting point for discussions about the future, he said.