Portland (OR) Mayor Charlie Hales’ budget proposals include replacing four four-man fire engines with two-man Rapid Response Vehicles, basically medically equipped SUVs. It’s part of a reorganization intended to save $2.8 million.
Fire Bureau calls currently get a full fire truck, with four firefighters. But the calls are overwhelmingly medical calls — in the 80 percent to 90 percent range, varying with each of the bureau’s 31 stations.
Hales had conflicts with the firefighters’ union in his first experience in City Hall, and his spokesman Dana Haynes notes about this proposal,
“We know the firefighters are not going to be happy.” Union leaders have raised questions about whether all staffing of calls must be covered by collective bargaining. But the city’s economic and efficiency interests also have a claim here.
Everyone involved in this discussion cites the experience of Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, which five years ago bought four SUVs (approximately $25,000 apiece) instead of more fire engines (approximately $630,000 apiece) for use on low-acuity calls, determined in the course of the original 911 call. They’re sent out on approximately 7 percent of calls.
The result, says Cassandra Ulven of TVF&R, “has met and exceeded initial expectations. We try to maximize our resources. It’s not a substitute for a four-person engine, but it’s another tool.”
There are complications in any fire arrangement. As Commissioner Steve Novick points out, some fire stations have limited demand but are so far from any other fire station that it’s hard to reduce their resources. Moreover, not all medical calls are low-acuity; heart attacks can require four people as much as a fire does.
Novick cites the considerable reduction in calls at night, especially at some stations, as another opportunity to recalculate efficiency, and possibly other ways for the city to make use of its firehouses. “We have called a bunch of fire systems around the country,” says Novick, “and nobody seems to have a magic bullet.”
A serious reconsideration of Fire Bureau resources and procedures might begin with naming a fire commissioner. Last week, Hales once more deferred the distribution of bureau responsibilities among the City Council, putting it off until after the budget process.
In TVF&R’s own study of utilizing Rapid Response Vehicles — or, as the agency calls them, Cars — it concluded, “Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue and many other fire service agencies cannot continue to do business the same way as the community’s needs change. Looking to alternative deployment of resources is one way that, over time, an effective workforce can be sustained by demonstrating and exercising fiscal responsibility in programs like this.”
The goal, the agency notes — not always precisely possible, but worth pursuing — is to “Deliver the right resource, with the right staffing, to the right call, at the right time.”
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