Boosting fire response resources

The mix of career, volunteer firefighters at Ferry Pass station aims to improve coverage in county

One in three.

Of the 9,066 calls that came to an Escambia County volunteer fire station in 2014, 33 percent — 2,959 calls — got no response from the station closest to the scene.

When the calls are “critical” —  a fire that damages property or a life-threatening emergency call — the statistics are barely better: 31 percent of those calls went unanswered by the station closest to the scene.

That doesn’t mean that no one arrived at all. It means that the firefighters who got there came from farther away. And that delay of minutes can make a world of difference.

Response times by the county’s volunteer fire stations rose to the forefront when two house fires within hours of each other on Good Friday tapped out the Ferry Pass station’s staffing.

In response, Escambia County Administrator Jack Brown put career firefighters at the station on Johnson Avenue.

On Friday, April 10, the first day the career crew was at the station, it paid off. A fire that day in the Spanish Trail Townhomes left a 70-year-old man injured.

Nick Gradia, Escambia County Professional Firefighters Local president, said the career personnel were on the first truck out. Two volunteers went in a separate truck.

Gradia, who works at the Ensley station 4 miles to the west, said a crew from his station arrived just after a crew from the more southerly Brent station got there.

“Had that (career) crew not started that morning, the first arriving truck would have had two volunteers on it, and they wouldn’t have been allowed to enter the structure,” Gradia said.

Rules require four firefighters to be on the scene before they can enter a structure.

“The initial structure attack would have been delayed 3 to 5 minutes,” and in that time, Gradia said, the fire easily could have spread to the adjacent townhouse.

“It’s a good thing they were there, definitely,” he said.

Gradia is among those hoping the Ferry Pass arrangement can be used to boost a long-standing desire to improve fire service with the addition of more career firefighters in the county.

“It’s not something new,” Gradia said. “It had happened on a pretty regular basis. It’s unfortunate that it came to that” to address the staffing issue at Ferry Pass.

Gradia says the union will pitch Escambia County commissioners on a $50 annual increase in the municipal services benefit unit for fire service.

That would take the $85 county residents now pay and bump it up to $135. That covers the cost of hiring 78 people, including 63 firefighters, as well as adding staff at the fire marshal’s office, battalion chiefs and other necessities.

“And you’ll be getting more bang for your buck because the volunteers still will be there,” Gradia says. “This is not about pushing volunteers out. They can be there and keep doing what they’re doing.”

Gradia says no one wants to get rid of volunteers, but locally they have no control over state requirements that make it harder to work as a firefighter.

“This is not about trying to run off volunteers,” he said.

Slow or no response

The Ferry Pass station — down the street from West Florida Hospital, Ferry Pass Elementary School and Ellyson Industrial Park  — was the busiest of Escambia’s volunteer fire stations in 2014, handling 2,098 incidents, according to county data.

Of those calls, 662 — 32 percent — got no response from the fire station. Another 922 — or 44 percent — saw understaffed responses by the crews that did arrive.

firefighter chart

County Commissioners, Escambia County Fire Rescue officials and others praise the work that the volunteer crews do. Their dedication to the job and their community is not the issue.

Paul Williams, deputy chief of Escambia County Fire Rescue, says understaffed responses are when fewer than three people are on a truck that arrives at the scene. It does not count volunteer firefighters who arrive in their personal vehicles.

Williams noted that just because no one responds from a volunteer station, it doesn’t mean that no one  shows up.

Anytime there is a call, the primary station for the particular area is dispatched and the next closest station is also dispatched to help, said county public information officer Bill Pearson.

“If the volunteers had the staffing to handle the call on scene, they would cancel the (backup) call,” Williams said. “If not, the career crew is on its way, but the response time would be longer.”

Room for improvement

Escambia County has 125 active certified volunteers, and 89 full-time paid and 24 part-time paid firefighters. Career firefighters began as one department in 2000.

Gradia said they have been working together since, especially after consolidation efforts stepped up in 2007.

“I came from the volunteer system myself,” he said. “This county cannot provide adequate fire service without volunteer personnel. It would take a substantial tax increase to do that, and that’s just not feasible.

“And the suburban area is so dense that an all-volunteer system cannot provide the service required,” Gradia said.

It is not only an issue in Ferry Pass. The Bellview station missed 19 percent of its 1,340 calls in 2014. Myrtle Grove missed 726, or 55 percent, of its 1,323 calls.

“That’s just not OK,” Gradia said of the Myrtle Grove numbers. “It’s not right.”

The increase the union proposes would cover the cost to add career crews at the volunteer stations with high-call volume in populated areas — Ferry Pass, Bellview, Myrtle Grove, West Pensacola and Innerarity Point.

It also could pay for one career crew to be strategically located to serve the north end of the county, Gradia said.

Kathleen Dough-Castro, public information manager for Escambia County, said it takes $750,000 per year to take a single all-volunteer station to an all-career station.

Adding the crew at Ferry Pass is covered in the existing budget for this year. Any tax increase to further address fire service could be discussed as the county begins the budget process, Dough-Castro said.