Fire station consolidations proposed across DuluthThe recommendations were generated by a $70,000 comprehensive study examining Duluth’s fire department operations from top to bottom. City officials received the report this week.
By: Peter Passi, Duluth News Tribune
A consultant recommends that the city of Duluth not only close its Park Point fire station because of thin staffing but also that it close its recently renovated Lakeside fire station for the same reason.
The recommendations were generated by a $70,000 comprehensive study examining Duluth’s fire department operations from top to bottom. City officials received the report this week.
Duluth Fire Chief John Strongitharm said he agrees with most of the report’s findings, but he knows that implementing its recommendations, including the possible closure of a few fire halls, will be no easy matter.
“I believe the recommendations are sound. What the report doesn’t tell us exactly is how to get there,” he said.
In addition to the immediate closure of the Park Point fire station, as the News Tribune reported Tuesday, the study also suggests the city look at consolidating the Woodland and Lakeside fire halls into a single new facility located where it could provide easy access to both neighborhoods.
While it may seem strange to leave the recently renovated Lakeside fire station, the property probably would be highly marketable as a piece of “prime real estate,” said Paul Flippin, a project manager for the TriData Division of System Planning Corp., the Arlington, Va.-based firm hired to evaluate Duluth’s fire operations.
“This study provides a good basis for change. But this process is still going to require public input and participation,” said David Montgomery, chief administrative officer for the city of Duluth. “It’s going to take some heavy lifting to get this done.”
Dick Gould, president of the Park Point Community Club, said he and his neighbors were none too pleased to hear of the recommendation to close their fire hall.
“We pay the highest taxes in the city, and if it happens, my home insurance costs will go up 20 to 25 percent because of that fire hall closing,” he said. “We’re being ripped off.”
The Park Point Community Club will meet Thursday, and Gould said there is talk bubbling that the neighborhood should form a volunteer fire department if necessary.
Several of Duluth’s fire stations are inadequately staffed, according to Flippin.
With only one firefighter on duty, the Park Point hall is the most thinly staffed.
But stations in Lakeside, Woodland and Gary operate with as few as two firefighters on duty at any one time.
Strongitharm said safety regulations mandate that at least four firefighters must respond to a call before they can enter a burning structure.
“We’re not compliant with industry standards,” said Duluth Assistant Fire Chief Erik Simonson, who also serves as president of International Association of Firefighters Local 101.
While the Local has not had adequate opportunity to review the recently released comprehensive report or to take a position on it, Erikson said one of the findings is indisputable.
“We’re not currently equipped to adequately staff nine stations,” he said.
Flippin recommends the city reallocate firefighters to stations where they will have sufficient numbers to respond to fire calls without waiting for reinforcements to arrive on the scene.
Even so, the department would need to hire three more firefighters to get up to desired staffing levels, Montgomery said.
Strongitharm said the department has applied for a grant that could provide up to two years of funding for new firefighter positions. If those grant applications prove successful, he said they could assist with the transition to a larger department.
Flippin also advised the city to hire an additional deputy chief to help manage the department.
“We found the chief and current deputy chief are really spread too thin,” he said.
Montgomery acknowledged city money is tight, and said he hopes Duluth can improve the efficiency of its operations and reallocate existing resources to cover the costs of the proposed changes.
Perhaps the most startling and disputed finding in the review involves dispatch operations.
“We found that the call processing times were 300 percent in excess of what they should be. And that has more to do with the dispatch center than the fire department,” Flippin said.
Supervising Deputy St. Louis County Sheriff Marcus Bruning, who oversees the local 911 center, expressed disbelief, saying: “There’s no way that’s representative of what we’re doing.”
National standards call for emergency call-processing to take no more than 60 seconds at least 90 percent of the time. The study found that the local dispatch center, operated by St. Louis County, took no more than 3 minutes and 20 seconds at least 90 percent of the time when receiving a fire or special operations call, based on data recorded between July 2010 and June 2011. Emergency medical calls were handled a bit more quickly, according to the report, with a call-processing time of 2 minutes and 49 seconds or less at least 90 percent of the time.
St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Littman said the report wasn’t shared with his staff until Tuesday and said they’re working to understand how the report arrived at its conclusions.
“We’re confident in our belief that the data was not properly interpreted,” he said. “Once we can look at the methodology, there’s probably some very logical explanation.”
Littman said his department regularly evaluates its dispatch operations. “We’ve found that everything we do meets or exceeds industry standards.”
Bruning said he plans to meet with Strongitharm in the coming days to look into the matter. Strongitharm, too, questioned the numbers, saying he would want to confirm them before blowing them out of proportion.