City of Commuter Heights - Fire Suppression Assessment
Innovative Public Safety - White Paper - October 10th, 2020
This Assessment of the Fire Service delivery system for The City of Commuter Heights was conducted by Innovative Public Safety at the request of the Communter County Council of Governments. The following authors contributed to the creation and editing of this report.
Jeff Gooch - Innovative Public Safety
Stephen Norcup - Innovative Public Safety
This report has been prepared at the request of the municipality as part of a Strategic Level Planning Program to identify how fire department services are provided for the municipality.
This study was completed in 3 phases. The first phase included evaluations of the facilities, equipment, personnel, and operations of the City of Commuter Heights Fire Department. A review was completed of the geography, demographics, hazards and topography of the municipality as well. Finally, the budgets, spending, and financials were reviewed for the department and municipality.
The second phase consisted of analysis and evaluation of the information received during the evaluation period. This includes trend analysis, comparison with other regional municipalities, and national fire standards. Preliminary findings and recommendations were reviewed through meetings and distribution to municipal and fire department officials. Adjustments to initial data were made where noted and continued to be made where validated during preparation of the final report.
The third phase is the preparation of the final report, which includes final recommendations for the fire department and municipality, all findings, recommendations for shared services, and a summary of reference materials. Additionally, summary tables of fire department data, financials and other pertinent documents are prepared and attached.
Overview & Personnel
The City of Commuter Heights Fire Department is led by Chief Mark Stowe, and consists of 32 firefighters (8 full-time, 1 part-time, and 23 volunteer) providing around the clock fire protection for the City. Responses outside of the City to surrounding municipalities are governed under mutual aid agreements and dispatched per standard alarm protocol by the Commuter County 911 Center.
The department trains regularly with training focused on basic and standard firefighting evolutions and tactics, as well as water rescue skills. Periodic training is held with mutual aid departments, and firefighters regularly attend external training for additional certifications. Regular training attendance is required for full-time staff.
In addition to the fire protection services the CHFD also assists with code inspections and enforcement services throughout the City with one full-time code enforcement officer/firefighter.
The CHFD has two stations, the fire headquarters located at 715 15th Street, Commuter Heights and a sub-station located at 1609 16th Avenue, Commuter Heights.
The fire headquarters is a multi-story facility connected to the City’s municipal offices and is centrally located in the business district of the City. The location of the station is well situated to provide adequate coverage to the City. The facility was found to be clean and well equipped, but a few items of wear and deterioration were noted. The concrete floors in the apparatus bay showed significant signs of wear, with large cracks and damage to the concrete located under the apparatus. Prior repairs had been made in some areas, but additional repairs are needed to ensure safety of all personnel. Additional damage to floors was found in the Kitchen area that, if unaddressed, could lead to safety concerns. The station houses an engine, aerial ladder, squad, and heavy rescue apparatus. While the station was well equipped, space was a major concern, especially in the apparatus bays. There is a kitchen, office area and day room, a large shared bunk room, and a fitness area in the basement.
The sub-station is a single-story garage located in a predominately residential neighborhood to the West of the city. This facility is owned and maintained by the volunteer department and is essentially a storage garage for the department. A single engine is housed in this station with no other amenities.
Engine 201 is a 2017 Pierce Arrow XT in excellent condition. It is compliant with NFPA standards for pumper fire apparatus equipment. Current results for pump tests, ladder testing and self-contained breathing apparatus testing were inspected and found to be in compliance with NFPA standards. This vehicle is well maintained and meets or exceeds NFPA standard 1901 for Pumper Fire apparatus.
Engine 202 is a 2008 Pierce Dash in good condition. It is compliant with NFPA standards for pumper fire apparatus equipment. Current results for pump tests, ladder testing and self-contained breathing apparatus testing were inspected and found to be in compliance with NFPA standards. This apparatus is housed at the sub-station.
Rescue 203 is a 2010 Spartan/Marion Heavy Rescue in good condition. It is compliant with NFPA standards for special service fire apparatus equipment. Current results for equipment testing were inspected and found to be in compliance with NFPA standards. This unit houses various equipment for vehicle, water, and other specialized rescue operations. The vehicle is well maintained and meets or exceeds NFPA standard 1901 for Special Service Fire apparatus.
Ladder 204 is a 2001 American LaFrance 100’ Tower Ladder in fair condition. It is compliant with NFPA standards for aerial fire apparatus equipment. Current results for pump tests, ladder testing and self-contained breathing apparatus testing were inspected and found to be in compliance with NFPA standards.
The condition of this apparatus is due to both age of the vehicle and the limited available parts available for repairs on American LaFrance apparatus since they went out of business in 2014. This vehicle responds first due into the City and for mutual aid into neighboring municipalities. The apparatus meets or exceeds NFPA 1901, although it has passed the recommended service life of 20 years for front line apparatus. It is recommended that future planning for capital expenses should be made in conjunction with other municipalities as part of a regional approach as described below.
The department has developed and maintains comprehensive Standard Operating Guidelines (SOGs). These cover all regular operations of the department, command procedures, and major administrative functions of the department.
The CHFD protects a combined 2.22 square mile first response district, with a population estimated at 9,212 (2010 Census) including the City of Commuter Heights and Eastvale Borough. Commercial and retail businesses add additional occupants in structures during regular business hours. The department responded to an average of 1,550 calls annually over the last 3 years. The number and distribution of calls appears to be consistent. Structure fire levels represent about 6% of the alarms annually. The following chart shows the distribution of alarms received during the years 2017-2019:
Manpower - Staffing - Response
NFPA 1500 defines the ‘2 in 2 out’ rule for beginning offensive fire attack and rescue operations at working structure fires. Additionally, NFPA 1720, Organization and Deployment of Fire Suppression Operations, Emergency Medical Operations, and Special Operations to the Public by Volunteer Fire Departments, defines the initial firefighting operations include an incident commander and at least four members assembled before interior fire suppression operations are initiated in a hazardous area. Sustained firefighting operations shall include fire suppression, search and rescue, forcible entry, ventilation, and property preservation. Resources to provide accountability and dedicated rapid intervention crews (RIC) are also necessary. In total, a critical tasking evaluation would conclude that 15 firefighters are needed at a minimum to provide sustained firefighting operations at a residential structure fire assignment.
During weekday business hours, the CHFD provides a career staff of 4 firefighters, including the full-time Fire Chief. At night and on the weekends, CHFD provides a career staff of 2 firefighters. Volunteer firefighters respond when available directly to the scene and additional companies are dispatched as part of the first alarm under a countywide mutual aid agreement. A full review of staffing and response was not conducted as part of this report but it was noted that there are times when the CHFD is unable to provide the minimum staffing for initial firefighting operations of an incident commander + 4 firefighters and/or unable to provide the minimum staffing for sustained firefighting operations of 15 firefighters. Adequate staffing is critical to the safety of both the community and emergency responders and finding creative solutions to provide consistent staffing levels is possible.
While many challenges exist with normalizing the staffing levels of volunteers, there are alternative staffing solutions to provide additional personnel available for immediate response. These include programs such as on-station duty crews and assigned response schedules. Consideration should be made to find ways to integrate alternative staffing programs using volunteers as part of a regional approach to fire protection.
In the most recent collective bargaining agreement, the shared position of Firefighter/Code Enforcement Officer was created to help fill a need in both the CHFD and the Code Enforcement department. This is a unique arrangement that can have both benefits and limitations. Further research should be conducted on the effectiveness of this role and the sharing of duties as well as the impact of adding code enforcement responsibilities on the CHFD.
Recruitment & Retention
Through a mix of full-time, part-time, and volunteer firefighters, the CHFD has maintained its roster levels consistently over the three-year data period examined. The hiring program of the CHFD uses part-time firefighters to supplement the full-time staff but has seen a decline in the number of applicants recently. The limited amount of shifts available to part-time staff and a lack of a local pool of experienced firefighters has resulted in difficulty recruiting staff that live in the immediate vicinity of the City. While the number of volunteer firefighters has remained fairly consistent over the three-year evaluation period, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find prospective members especially in the immediate response area. Consideration should be made to creating a separate classification of membership to recruit volunteer members into the CHFD who live outside of the immediate response area and can provide a minimum amount of time on-station and available for immediate response. A nominal stipend could be paid to these members to cover expenses while on-duty.
Funding & Administration
Table 2 provides a complete overview and total of the expenses that are made by the City and Fire Department for fire protection services.
The largest single expense item for fire protection in the municipal budget is, as anticipated, the salaries and benefits from the paid staff. The fire department finances have been well managed, but it has required the creative use of grant programs and funding to cover many large and capital expenses. In total, over $1.3 million has been received through state and federal grant programs in the last 18 years. This commendable effort has allowed the CHFD to maintain the necessary equipment required to provide adequate fire protection to the City. This endeavor should continue to maximize the funding available to provide updated equipment that meets applicable and necessary safety standards.
(Table 3 - Municipal Expenditures for Fire Services for Comparable Communities)
Table 3 provides an overview of the municipal expenditures for the City of Commuter Heights and 9 comparable communities within the region. This data shows a comparison of dollars per capita and as a percentage of the total municipal budget. It is apparent that CHFD expenditures, while ranked in the middle of the comparison, still maintains a budget that is less than 10% of the total City budget.
Many communities in the region are funded by a combination of fundraising, federal and state grant programs, relief association payments, and municipal funding. Municipal funding in turn can consist of direct purchases, debt service, service payments and shared purchases with other municipal departments and services. This complex funding arrangement makes comparing the cost of fire protection between municipalities challenging.
One way to compare the costs between similar municipalities in a region is an average cost per capita of fire protection. This is a calculation of the annual cost of fire protection over a given period divided by the most recent population estimates provided by the US Census.
The fully career fire departments of Butler and Meadville exceed $100 per capita, showing that the CHFD per capita cost is lower than the similar fully paid communities.
Another way to look at the cost of fire protection is to look at the percentage of the municipal budget that is targeted for annual expenses for fire protection. This includes expenses such as, salaries, worker’s compensation, direct purchases of equipment, loan payments for buildings or equipment, hydrant rental, and other materials or services. For comparative purposes, relief association funds are removed from the expense category as this is a pass through from the Commonwealth.
For CHFD, the 2019 operating budget provides municipal funds in the amount of $744,430 for fire protection from a $7.7 million general operating budget. This represents 9.66% of the total general operating budget. Table No. 3 above also provides an overview of the budget amounts for fire protection in communities of similar size and demographics. Five of the communities, including the City of Commuter Heights, are considered combination departments with both career and volunteer members, three are full career departments, and two are primarily volunteer fire departments.
Collective Bargaining Agreement
The Commuter Heights Fire Department has a typical paramilitary structure. The Non-Union Fire Chief is over the entire Department, and there are currently 3 Captains that serve in Officer roles.
The Department consists of nine full-time employees and one part-time officer, all of which are under the direction of the Fire Chief. All ten employees are members of a collective bargaining agreement under the International Association of Firefighters Local 3539. The most current contract was a one year extension, had minimal changes, and expired on December 31, 2019. The agreement includes provisions for part-time firefighters called (casual) and also a cross trained employee that is to spend the majority of their time working as a Code Enforcement Officer. Current employees must live within 10 miles of City Hall and new hires must live within 5 miles.
The contract does not reference any probationary period for new hires, although the pay scale shows 0 to 1 year probationary rate. There are five job classifications and subsequent wage rates employees may be assigned for most classifications. There is a step salary scale for new employees. Employees reach full wage rate after completing their second full year. Overtime is paid at two times the hourly rate for hours worked over 53 hours worked per week, which is in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) Firefighter Exemption.
There is a manpower allocation section, that defines the role of the Chief as a firefighter, and there is also a minimum staffing requirement of 2 firefighters. The number of casual firefighters permitted is based on the number of full-time firefighters on the roster. The use of Casual firefighters have specific provisions including maximum hours of 32 per week, cannot be the OIC, cannot be paid more than a FT firefighter, cannot be considered initially for OT, call off shift covering needs awarded to full time firefighters first, open shifts from vacation and code enforcement can be assigned to casual staff,
The regular work week for all employees, covered by the collective bargaining agreement, consists of two shifts, daytime (nine hours) and nighttime (15 hours). All full-time employees are granted twelve (11) holidays and three (3) 24-hour tours (personal time) per year.
Uniforms are provided to all employees upon hire. A $600 uniform allowance is outlined with specific items that can be purchased annually. Employees are obligated to maintain the cleaning of the uniforms and to report issues with uniforms.
Protective gear is provided to all employees by the City. Employees are required to report issues with equipment, which the City must respond within three days. There is no prescribed form called out for this reporting process.
Employees are granted twelve (21) sick days per year and can accumulate an unlimited number of days. The City buys back an employee's unused sick days at a rate $10 / day up to 150 days upon retirement. A $500 bonus is paid if no sick days are used in a year per employee. One sick day must be used per shift. A physician note can be requested after two consecutive call offs or where abuse is perceived.
Vacation time is very generous and is earned in weeks over four stages up to a maximum of six (6) weeks. There is no explanation how vacations are requested or awarded, when they should be submitted for consideration by employees and how multiple requests for a similar date would be handled.
Employees are afforded longevity pay after 5 years of service at a rate of $50 /year up to a maximum of $500 for those hired after 2005. Those hired before 2005 have no cap. A life insurance plan of $15,000 worth of coverage is provided.
Employees are allocated $500 annually for training, with approval of the Chief. There is a higher education annual benefit of $300 for an Associate’s degree, $450 for a Bachelor’s degree and $600 for a Masters. Individual courses are reimbursed at $350 per course with approval of the Chief and City Manager.
Bereavement leave is clearly identified within the contract.
Discipline is not clearly identified within the agreement however the grievance process steps are outlined.
Fitness for duty is emphasized throughout the contract, both at the time of hire and through the requirement of an annual, employer paid physical.
The City requires a contribution of 5% of an employee’s gross salary towards the pension plan plus a $1 monthly increment. Contributions are required by each employee to be made from the Heart and Lung / Comp Benefits if those are in effect for an employee. Vesting is called out to be 12 years and there is reopened language in the event a state pension takes over the fireman’s pension plan. Retirement eligibility begins at 25 years of service and has reached 50 years of age.
Employees have a required contribution of healthcare benefits (medical, vision and dental) at a rate of $50 per pay for coverage, regardless of the type of plan selected. Employees are compensated at a rate of 50% of the savings if they opt out of the coverage.
There is an MOU attached to the contract that defines a dual code enforcement officer and firefighter position. Hours, vacations, holidays, and wages are all called out for this position. This is a unique arrangement.
Regional Approach to Fire Suppression
The primary reason to develop a regional model for fire service delivery should focus on improved fire service response and operations, with a secondary consideration of economics and management.
Fire departments in the region have seen dramatic changes in the last 20 years, including declining number of applicants, increased responsibilities associated with emergency response (e.g. hazardous materials, EMS/QRS, technical rescue), and additional training qualifications needed to effectively preform the duties required. While the number of serious fires and fire fatalities has decreased nationwide, the overall number of responses continues to increase. Area departments in particular are impacted by the aging of its volunteer firefighter force.
Each community and its emergency services are being asked to provide increased levels of service with shrinking resources and decreasing budgets. The need exists to evaluate and change the current model to provide the adequate emergency protection and the necessary funding to meet community expectations.
Each community must determine what level of service is required to protect their community, how much it will cost, how will it be funded and the most appropriate method to deliver the service.
In February of 2008 various municipal codes were amended with the applicable clause of “the municipality shall be responsible for ensuring the fire and emergency medical services are provided within the municipality by the means and to the extent determined by the municipality, including the appropriate financial and administrative assistance for these services. The municipality shall consult the fire and emergency medical service providers to discuss the emergency service needs of the municipality. The municipality shall require any emergency services organization receiving municipality funds to provide the municipality with an annual itemized listing of all expenditures of these funds before the municipality may consider budgeting additional funding to the organization.” These amendments have been enacted for first and second class townships as well as boroughs.
Combining fire departments is one method available that a number of municipalities and fire departments are using to respond to the issues listed above. This combination of services can range from joint operating agreements with mutual aid agencies, shared standards, and purchasing all the way to a complete merger. Merging services can be accomplished in many ways, there are 5 primary categories which cover most combination alternatives:
Administrative: Two or more fire departments maintain separate operations but share key administrative functions. An example would be common purchasing and standardization of equipment and procedures to control costs
Partial: Departments maintain legal separation but work as a group for defined service areas such as rescue response and other mutual aid. This may include joint purchase of shared equipment and apparatus
Functional: Departments maintain legal separation, but perform certain functions as one department, such as training and maintenance
Operational: Departments maintain legal separation, but join together for all administrative and operational functions, delivering services as one department
Full: 2 or more departments merge completely into a single legal entity. All service demands across multiple municipalities are met by one organization
Considerations - Consolidation Strategies
Amount of time it takes fire units and firefighters to respond to emergencies.
Number of firefighters who respond to a call
How costs will be shared
Equipment and apparatus placement at fire stations
Minimum training levels
One fire department
One set of rules, regulations and operating guidelines
One personnel management system
One chain of command
Improved fire ground communications
Improved standard fire ground operations
Reduced response times
Improved firefighter safety
Cost transparency to the municipalities
Reduction in administrative efforts for volunteer firefighters
Including CHFD, there are multiple fire stations within 5 miles of the City of Commuter Heights. While there exists good working relationships and mutual aid agreements between them, there is not a formalized shared process for determining equipment needs, purchasing, analysis of response and manpower statistics, or avoiding potentially redundant expenses or activities. While only CHFD was studied, it is assumed that other jurisdictions provide similar levels of fire protection to their communities. It is also assumed that equipment, testing and training are consistent with national standards, and there is a high degree of dedication, commitment and adherence to the traditions of all departments and their long history of community service.
Given the high availability of fire protection resources in the municipality and adjacent communities the opportunity exists to look at how fire protection and fire service delivery are provided. A well-timed, organized and executed analysis can be conducted to define the current and future benefits, including:
Reduction of administrative overhead.
Improved response times and number of firefighters both paid and volunteers responding.
Opportunity for equal representation of all communities in developing fire service delivery models.
Opportunity for firefighters to gain additional experience and respond to additional alarms.
Increased firefighter safety with additional firefighters and standardization of equipment, communications, training, and procedures.
Recommendation No. 1 – Safety Related Repairs
The City should make needed repairs related to safety items in the fire station and develop a plan for ongoing maintenance to the facility. These repairs are important to ensuring the safety of the firefighters and the public who visit the station.
Recommendation No. 2 – Volunteer Firefighter Fitness Assessments
The current collective bargaining agreement provides routine NFPA 1582 compliant physical examinations. This same program should be extended to the volunteer firefighters as well, both as an initial screening and annually in the same manner as the career staff.
Recommendation No. 3 – Appointment of a Health and Safety Officer
In addition to having a comprehensive health and wellness program, the department should appoint a health and safety officer who can maintain the program and facilitate ongoing efforts to ensure that all members health and wellbeing remains a priority. This position would also ensure proper documentation for all exposures.
Recommendation No. 4 – Alternate Staffing Models
Alternative staffing programs using volunteer firefighters should be implemented, including on-duty crews and/or assigned response schedules to increase the minimum available staffing.
The issue of staffing was a critical concern shared by the leadership and additional programs provided by volunteers should be explored. These programs include on-duty crews or scheduled response crews that supplement volunteers to the existing career staff. This type of program allows additional firefighters to be added to increase the minimum staffing levels and improve the safety and effectiveness of the crew.
Recommendation No. 5 – Firefighter Classification
A new classification of membership should be created for volunteer firefighters who do not live in the City or surrounding response area to provide supplemental on-station staffing and be available for immediate response.
While volunteer members who live in the City or adjacent municipalities are preferred to ensure quick response times, allowing members who live further away to join can increase the pool of potential applicants. When combined with alternative staffing programs, this additional classification of membership can expand the total number of available responders and help provide additional resources.
Recommendation No. 6 – Further Evaluation of Public Safety Services
The services provided by the CHFD should all be considered important to the safety of the community, but not all services are equal in terms of the risk levels or needs of the City. A thorough evaluation of the current services and appropriate service levels should be conducted to ensure that the correct levels are being provided to the City. It is not feasible for any agency to provide all services equally, and all agencies should define what level of service they are reasonably able to provide.
Recommendation No. 7 – Participation in Professional Societies
The Municipality should fund the annual cost of the Fire Chief’s membership in the IAFC as well as the cost of attending the annual section conference which provides information, seminars and exposure to peers for combination chief officers.
Recommendation No. 8 – Automation of Administrative Tasks
CHFD Should explore and implement a more modernized approach to staff management and reporting via a web-based workforce and staff management system.
It is recommended that the department investigate a web-based employee and volunteer scheduling system. Such system allows for improved record management and accountability for call offs, vacations, and employee time tracking as well as to assist with alternative staffing programs.
Recommendation No. 9 – Regionalized Response Model
Based on the findings of this assessment, there are potential service improvements and long term cost management and avoidance opportunities that would benefit the fire department, municipality and residents. CHFD and the City should meet with fire and municipal officials of surrounding communities and determine the feasibility of conducting a joint fire service delivery study. It is further recommended that support in terms of resources and assistance from the Department of Community and Economic Development (DCED) be requested.
The State provides for intergovernmental cooperation. This cooperation is to be authorized by ordinance or resolution by the participating governments.
Recommendation No. 10 – Development of a Capital Improvement Plan (CIP)
Capital purchases for fire apparatus often represent the highest cost component for fire departments and municipalities outside of building construction and expansion.
The feasibility of a joint regional study of fire service delivery should be considered. The need to replace any of the apparatus should be part of a shared needs analysis. If such a study cannot be undertaken or is not supported by the communities involved, then replacement planning and alternatives (funding, leasing, grants, etc.) should commence and a CIP for the CHFD should be developed.
The assessment found that the overall delivery of fire services in the City of Commuter Heights for protection, prevention and fire suppression is well managed and working to become even more effective and efficient. The department continues moving towards modernization to meet recommended standards. This positive progress can be continued by a planned capital improvement program for facilities and equipment, particularly on a regional level. In addition, a regional approach to fire protection should be evaluated for opportunities to improve services, control costs and minimize the duplication of equipment and services.
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