Ala. mayor accuses fire department of inflating call numbers

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The Decatur Daily

DECATUR, Ala. — Mayor Don Kyle said Station 4 in Northwest Decatur should close, and he is convinced the fire department’s division chiefs are artificially increasing calls to justify keeping it open.

Station 4 is on Nelms Road, just off West Moulton Street and a mile east of Beltline Road. It houses the city’s two ladder trucks and is situated for quick access to industries along the Tennessee River, Wayne Farms and Wheeler Estate Apartments. Wheeler Estate is home to 600 people in several three-story buildings.

Kyle collected the data on call volumes at Station 4 from Morgan County 911, rather than from Decatur Fire and Rescue. According to the data he collected, Station 4 had between 47 and 69 calls per month through July, before former Chief Darwin Clark reduced its coverage area.

“Back when Chief Clark was here is when we cut back on the coverage area to see how it would save on wear and tear on the ladder trucks,” Division Chief Janice Johnson said. “It drastically decreased call volume — it cut it down too much — which put too much load on the other stations in the area. That’s why we returned it to its former coverage area.”

Between August and December, call volume dropped dramatically at Station 4, ranging from three to seven calls per month.

In January, when coverage was returned to its previous area, call volumes jumped, ranging from 36 to 55 per month.

Kyle said he heard no complaints from the community about slow response times or inadequate service during the period Station 4 had a reduced coverage area. He said insurance rates would not increase if the number of stations dropped from eight to seven.

“Pretty much no matter what we do, he wants to close the station,” Johnson said. “If we back down the coverage area like Clark did, then we hear the station is not necessary because it’s not running enough calls. If we put it back to the original coverage area, then he says we’re doing it to show an elevated need. It’s a no-win situation.”

Kyle said there were two reasons for the jump in calls, both of which he said represented efforts by the fire department to justify Station 4′s existence. He said the department expanded the station’s coverage area and began taking more medical calls.

Medical calls

Battalion Chief Ted McKelvey, the EMS coordinator, said he recommended a temporary increase in responses to medical calls, and his proposal had nothing to do with Station 4.

When Decatur Emergency Medical Services Inc. began having problems keeping enough ambulances on call in January, McKelvey said he became concerned that medical calls would not receive a prompt response.

“I called (Division Chief Lorenzo Jackson) and advised him I thought we should go ahead and pick up all calls temporarily until we figured out how the system was going to flow,” McKelvey said.

DEMSI shut down March 3, leaving First Response as the city’s sole ambulance provider.

Responding to budgetary pressures, Clark had ended responses to all but Category 1 calls, the most critical, life-threatening calls. McKelvey said this decision caused him some concern even when DEMSI was healthy. Category 2 calls also are life-threatening, and the decision on whether a call is Category 1 or Category 2 is made by dispatchers at Morgan County 911. The distinction between the two categories is murky, McKelvey said, and is tough to make based on a telephone call.

Because the fire department often can respond more quickly than ambulances, and because calls identified as Category 2 may turn out to be more critical than the dispatcher realized, McKelvey said dispatching fire trucks can save lives.

McKelvey also recommended, and Jackson approved, dispatching fire trucks to some Category 3 calls. These calls are not life-threatening. He recommended the fire department, and not ambulances, respond to Category 3 “lift assist” calls, when the patient is not injured but falls and is unable to get up.

“We picked those back up because they were tying up a lot of the ambulances that would not be available for the emergency transports,” McKelvey said.

McKelvey said he expects to change this policy and reduce the number of medical calls to which fire trucks respond, but he does not want to do so until he is sure First Response can maintain timely responses to emergency calls.

“My view is we want to err on the side of safety,” McKelvey said. “My recommendation had nothing to do with Station 4.”

Coverage area

Johnson said the change in Station 4′s coverage area likewise had nothing to do with thwarting Kyle’s desire to close the station.

She said Clark shrunk the coverage area of Station 4 because he hoped reducing the use of the two ladder trucks in the station would save money. The experiment was not successful. More distant stations were responding to calls that previously had been in Station 4′s coverage area, meaning response times were slower. The hoped-for cost savings, she said, did not materialize.

McKelvey said the reduced coverage area was an experiment that did not work.

“Clark decreased the territory quite a bit in an effort to save some costs of running the truck,” McKelvey said. “We found it wasn’t that much of a cost savings. Really, all we were saving was some maintenance and fuel. We decided it was better to go back to the territory Station 4 was designed to cover so people would get a rapid response from the station.”

$1.5M investment

Station 4 was built at a cost of about $1.5 million in 2008, while Kyle was in his first term as mayor. Kyle said at the time he was expecting more development on the north end of Beltline Road, near the station. Kyle said he still expects the area to develop, but he said staffing the station is not necessary in the meantime.

“In hindsight, it maybe would have been better if we hadn’t made that investment,” Kyle said. “It was made with all the study and review and expertise available at the time.”

Johnson said the reasons for building Station 4 also justify its existence. She said Station 4 is in a good location for the ladder trucks and plays a critical role in serving Northwest Decatur.

Station 2, located next to Leon Sheffield Magnet School, is the first responder for most of Northwest Decatur. It is separated from much of its coverage area, however, by railroad tracks. Station 4 provides an important back-up to fires and medical calls in the area when Station 2 is blocked by a train.

Station 4 has 12 firefighters — four per shift — and Kyle estimated closing it would save $500,000 to $750,000 a year.

Johnson said she cannot imagine where he got his estimate.

The number of firefighters the department needs, she said, is dictated less by the number of stations than by the number of fire trucks. If the ladder trucks are removed from Station 4, the city still will have to employ firefighters to operate them. She said the savings from closing Station 4 would be minor, and would come with slower response times.

“We know what he wants,” Johnson said of the mayor. “Regardless of what we do or which way we do it, we’re not going to get a favorable outcome. No matter what reasons we present, I know it doesn’t matter.”

Morale at the department is falling fast, Johnson said, and it’s not just because of the debate over Station 4.

On Monday, the City Council will vote on Kyle’s recommendations for mid-year budget adjustments. The largest decrease — $278,000 — is in fire department salaries.

Kyle said the decrease was made possible because he has not authorized new hires or promotions at Decatur Fire and Rescue. The fire chief’s job also had been open since September until the council recently voted to hire Tony Grande, of the Knoxville, Tennessee, Fire Department.

“I declined to fill those positions and do some of the promotions that might have been eligible,” Kyle said. “If I fill those positions and do all those promotions and we have a totally full staff when the new chief comes in, he’s locked in to the status quo.”

Many firefighters were outspoken in their support of Jackson, a 33-year veteran of the department and the sole internal candidate for fire chief position. Grande, a battalion chief in Knoxville, will start June 23.

Fully staffed, Johnson said, the fire department would have 126 employees. Because firefighters who leave the department are not being replaced, the number is down to 103.

She said several firefighters have met all the qualifications, but the city has declined to promote them. This increases overtime expenses, she said, because there is a shortage of lieutenants to supervise crews. Just as significant, she said, it hurts morale.

“Other city departments have had promotions authorized,” Johnson said. “They only held back promotions for us. Now our guys are wondering what they did wrong.”

Kyle said Johnson’s and Jackson’s resistance to closing Station 4 is an indication they are focused more on protecting firefighters than on conserving taxpayer money.

“By keeping Station 4 open, you keep the enrollment in the firefighters’ group up,” Kyle said. “I don’t think their perspective is management-oriented. I think they’re purely oriented toward fire service and fire-service personnel.”

“That’s bizarre,” Johnson said. “We want more people because we’re short-handed.”

Johnson said she and her colleagues at the department feel embattled, and the mayor’s claim she is artificially elevating Station 4 numbers does not help.

“It makes me sad they think this is all a game,” Johnson said. “It’s not a game. This is my home. I want to take care of people in my home city. The best way I know to do it is keeping the stations open and having the firefighters we need.”

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(c)2014 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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