By Marek Warszawski
June 21, 2020 08:40 AM , Updated June 21, 2020 09:22 AM
The daily shuffle of Fresno Fire Department trucks explained
Fresno Fire Department Public Information Officer Shane Brown explains how Fresno Fire resources are shuffled throughout town Friday, June 19, 2020 in Fresno. By Eric Zamora
So the national average is 1 firefighter for every 1,000 people in a population. The daily shuffle of Fresno Fire Department trucks explained
First thing Monday morning, the Fresno City Council will consider motions to relieve cops of their homeless and mental health duties.
In doing so, Fresno joins a growing number of cities that are re-examining how their police departments are funded and deployed following weeks of nationwide protests over racism and police brutality. “We all have a responsibility to make things right and better,” Councilmember Esmeralda Soria said. “This is our opportunity to redesign how our city will work for all Fresnans.”
This is a conversation Fresno has needed for a long time. There’s just one caveat: City leaders can’t just take those homeless and mental health responsibilities and dump them in the lap of the Fresno Fire Department. To me, the most eye-opening (you might even say alarming) portion of last week’s council budget hearings was the presentation by Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis.
It’s easy to take fire departments and firefighters for granted, especially true at a time when police reform and defunding are the topics du jour. Which is why some of the numbers and answers Donis gave deserve amplifying.
The key metric is minimum daily staffing. Fresno currently employs 315 firefighters and has 80 on duty during each shift. Those numbers are the same as in 1980, when the city’s population was less than half what it is now. Fresno’s growth — with no corresponding increase in positions — has reached a point where there are 0.55 firefighters per 1,000 residents. That’s well below both the state average for a metro department (0.81) and the national average (1.5). “The department has been and continues to be the lowest staffed fire department in the state and the country that serves a similar population and runs a similar call volume,” Donis said. That bears repeating: Fresno’s is the lowest staffed fire department in the nation for a city its size that responds to a similar number of calls.
Fresno Fire Department public information officer Shane Brown describes the danger of how fire fighting crews are constantly shifted around town, potentially leaving gaps of coverage due to lack of manpower Friday, June 19, 2020 in Fresno. What does that mean for residents? And what would be the effect of replacing cops with firefighters on homeless response calls, as councilmembers have suggested? I spoke with Donis by phone and spent a couple hours with Shane Brown, the department’s public information officer, trying to answer those questions.
Answering 120 calls a day
Fresno has 20 fire stations, plus one at the airport. Nineteen of the 20 stations house fire engines, and four have an additional ladder truck. (Station 14 at Polk and Escalon houses a ladder truck but no engine.) These 19 fire engines and five ladder trucks, manned by three- and four-person companies, are the response vehicles for every service call. How many calls? The current rate is 120 per day, 13 to 20 of which are fires. The remainder are medical calls. (Fresno firefighters respond to all immediately life-threatening “Priority 1” medical emergencies. Less urgent “Priority 2s and 3s” are handled by American Ambulance.)
Staffing levels are such that in the event of major fire, units from other parts of the city and even off-duty personnel have to be called in to backfill. That was the case May 7 when a vegetation fire broke out along Highway 41 near Friant Road, quickly spread to four houses and required 50 firefighters to extinguish. Which can lead to longer response times when the next medical call comes in. Or in an especially heavy call period, no response at all. “Even a heart attack across the street from the station, when those resources are off fighting a fire in another part of the city,” Donis said.
Donis’ current priority is establishing two-person “rapid response squads” to handle medical emergencies. Besides being able to get to a scene faster, more of those 19 engines and five ladders could remain parked. “It would really save on the maintenance and expenses of running a 40,000- or 80,000-pound piece of equipment 17 times times a day, which they are not built to do,” she said.
SAFER grant snafu
During the budget hearings, council members lambasted members of Mayor Lee Brand’s administration for failing to apply for a federal SAFER grant despite a 6-1 City Council vote directing staff to do so. The grant money would’ve partially funded nine new positions for the next five years, giving Donis room to hire six firefighters for the two-person response squad she wants as well as three safety captains, one of the recommendations following the 2015 roof collapse that severely burned Capt. Pete Dern. (Fresno firefighters work 48-hour shifts followed by 96 off-duty hours, so it takes three people to staff one position around the clock.)
I get that politicians are looking for creative ways to re-imagine public safety. And that it might be tempting to replace police officers with firefighters in some friendlier, reconfigured version of the Homeless Task Force. In Fresno, though, the fire and emergency medical response systems are already overextended to the point where that there’s no easy baton pass. Not without the type of investment city leaders have been unwilling, or unable, to make.
“I’m open to having that conversation in how we can help in any way,” Donis said, “but not to redeploy our current resources.” Take the nation’s most thinly stretched fire department and stretch it even thinner? That wouldn’t be in anybody’s best interest.