EFR response times improve, overtime drops

March 2, 2010

By J.B. Wogan

When Eastside Fire & Rescue Chief Lee Soptich finally had a chance to reflect on 2009, one he counts as the most stressful of any in his 24 years as a fire chief, he said it was a mixed bag.

“It was the best of years and the worst of years for me,” Soptich said.

Despite the danger of layoffs and the unpleasantness of intra-agency conflict, EFR had a good year in terms of responding to emergencies, he said.

The partners who fund EFR, including Issaquah, were scrambling to address drops in revenue from sales tax and the frozen real estate market; they asked the agency not increase the cost of fire protection for 2010, despite likely cost increases from employee salaries and benefits.

But year-end data shows that firefighters are responding to calls faster, expensive fires were down from 2008, the agency did not exceed its overtime budget for staffing firefighters and no firefighters suffered career-ending injuries.

Soptich said the agency, which formed in 1999, has never had a career-ending injury. Nonetheless, it’s one of his top priorities every year.

With the help of cost-cutting measures proposed by the local firefighters union, the agency also avoided any layoffs. Soptich said EFR has never laid off a firefighter. Before EFR formed, when he was fire chief of King County Fire District 10, he did lay off 13 nonfirefighter employees between 1996 and 1997.

Response times

Kevin Bryson, data analyst for EFR, published a report showing that EFR firefighters have steadily improved their response times since January 2008.

Response times measure the time it takes between receiving a 911 call to firefighters suiting up and leaving the fire station.

In January 2008, firefighters met the agency’s standard about 60 percent of the time for 731 calls. A year later, firefighters met the agency’s standard about 67.5 percent of the time for 745 calls. In December 2009, firefighters met the standard about 88 percent of the time.

From January to December 2009, firefighters’ average response time dropped 14 seconds for daytime emergency medical services calls, 12 seconds for nighttime emergency medical services calls, 20 seconds for daytime fire-related calls and 22 seconds for nighttime fire-related calls.

In a memo to employees within EFR, Bryson suggested that firefighters’ times improved as they became aware of their performance and started competing with one another to respond to calls faster.

EFR firefighters had a history of not meeting agency standards for response times.

Part of the problem, according to EFR officials, had to do with an unrealistic one-size-fits-all standard. So, in July 2009, EFR established a more nuanced system of standards that reflected the practical differences between responding to a nighttime or daytime call.

Officials at EFR also say there is an inevitable lag for fire-related calls where firefighters need to don protective suits before leaving the station, so two standards identify responses with and without protective suits.

The previous standard required that firefighters responding to a call must leave the fire station within 90 seconds of receiving a call, 90 percent of the time. In 2008, EFR’s actual turnout time was 146 seconds 90 percent of the time.

Bryson’s data shows improvement using the old or new standard. While the standards are more forgiving, firefighters are responding faster, too.

Less expensive fires

The monetary losses incurred by fires were down in 2009, though you might as well chalk it up to luck, according to Wes Collins, EFR deputy chief. Collins stressed that cutting down on expensive fires may not have anything to do with EFR’s performance in a given year.

“Tomorrow, Costco could burn down,” Collins said, pointing to an example where a single incident could inflate the amount of monetary losses due to fires.

He said it’s possible that EFR saw less expensive fires last year because people were quicker to dial 911 this year, or the buildings that had fires were less valuable than the year before.

Whatever the reason, fires this year caused $383,013 less in damages, down about 13.9 percent from 2008.

Overtime was within the budget

The agency also spent $70,000 less than it expected in overtime for staffing firefighters. EFR’s 2009 budget had $600,000 set aside for this purpose, but the agency spent $530,000. Soptich said it’s a qualified success, since the agency had set $480,000 as a goal, and overspent that target.

The agency promoted a lieutenant to captain, making him a floating position that could fill in gaps and avoid overtime. Firefighters receive 1.5 times normal pay when working overtime.

EFR’s 2010 budget anticipates spending far less on overtime in 2010, setting aside $395,000. If the agency pulls it off, it would mean a 26 percent reduction from 2009.

J.B. Wogan: 392-6434, ext. 247, or jbwogan@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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