Fire division targets waste, morale issues

7:00 p.m Monday, Dec. 28, 2015 Politics

Springfield will change its fire and emergency medical services response methods — sending fewer first responders and vehicles initially — in order to be more efficient and save taxpayer money.

A group of 12 firefighters, including Chief Nick Heimlich and IAFF Local 333 President Andy Rigsbee, developed a strategic plan with City Manager Jim Bodenmiller after a report a year ago showed concerns from firefighters about outdated equipment and low morale.

The plan will be implemented over three phases between now and 2018. Firefighters served on committees throughout the year to help plan the changes, Heimlich said.

The division performed more than 16,700 runs this year, up from more than 14,000 runs in 2013. More than 85 percent of the emergency response calls could be handled by a two-paramedic ambulance crew, Heimlich said.

The division will reorganize its internal structure — increasing its companies and reducing the number of personnel on basic calls. The division has also added flexibility for dispatchers and will continue to investigate its aging fleet of fire engines and ambulances.

The division previously used three-person companies that could perform both fire and EMS runs, depending on the status of the call.

As part of the changes, four three-person companies will remain in place in the new structure, but three companies will be dedicated to fire response and three two-person ambulance units will be dedicated to medical response calls, Heimlich said. The new structure is expected to begin next week, Heimlich said.

The change allows for higher-ranking fire personnel to be available for command positions on fire calls, rather than on an ambulance call when an event occurs, Heimlich said.

The dedicated fire companies can also focus on other fire initiatives, such as inspections, hydrant maintenance and field training objectives, Heimlich said.

“When that person is constantly having to respond on an ambulance call, it makes it very difficult for that person to be able to manage other aspects of the system,” Heimlich said. “We’re trying to focus our command and control and management resources where we can use them most effectively.”

While the plan is not perfect, it’s a step in the right direction, Rigsbee said. The city cannot afford to hire more firefighters or reduce the number of calls for service, Rigsbee said, meaning it must provide firefighters a chance to focus on one job, rather than many jobs.

“The only other way we can try to combat the problem is to redistribute what we have to try to gain a little bit more ability to do parts of our problems better,” Rigsbee said. “Most everyone would agree it’s a better answer. By saying it’s not perfect, I’m not criticizing by any stretch. I just think it’s a work in progress.”

The division has also added more flexibility to the way dispatchers initially send units on certain calls, such as automated alarm calls, Heimlich said. The dispatchers will have more categories available to them when a call comes in, allowing them to dispatch appropriate companies, rather than sending everyone on a basic call, said Lt. Jason Phipps.

“We’ll be able to more efficiently dispatch our resources so that we still have maximum coverage for the rest of the city while we’re on these incident calls,” said Phipps, who worked closely with dispatchers on the changes.

By initially sending less personnel on certain calls, it will allow the division to save money on fuel and save resources for other calls, Heimlich said.

“We can obviously increase if we need more help,” he said, “but it’s important to us that we not over-commit resources and be constantly disrupting, interrupting or constantly chasing our tail from here to there, running extra people we don’t need to go there.”

They’ll evaluate the changes over the course of 2016 to see which service method is more efficient, he said.

A fleet assessment for the division’s aging vehicles was also performed because of an increase in repairs. The division has several recurring issues with vehicles, Heimlich said, including small repairs that could lead to other issues on the vehicles.

The agency currently has 22 vehicles that are more than 10 years old, including several models from the 1990s.

The division met with outside vendors earlier this month to discuss an efficient way to provide for both emergency repairs and scheduled preventative maintenance, Heimlich said.

“As the equipment gets older, more things are happening and we’re spending more time in repair mode and less time in maintenance mode,” Heimlich said. “We needed to get that turned around.”

The fire division’s annual budget is about $13 million. It employs about 125 firefighters, with plans to reach the city charter-mandated minimum staffing number of 127 in June.

Springfield Mayor Warren Copeland hopes the changes will be more efficient and provide better morale for employees. Citizens have a real appreciation for the services they provide, he said.

“They think this is a system that will work better for them,” Copeland said. “I hope that’s the case.”

The strategic process has been a good one so far, Phipps said.

“It’s exactly where we need be,” Phipps said. “I don’t think we’ll ever be done, but that’s just kind of the way life is.”