Already swamped with calls, Tacoma Fire faces cuts to engine service levels next year

Already swamped with calls, Tacoma Fire faces cuts to engine service levels next year
Tacoma Fire Department faces loss of engine service and increased response times next year due to proposed cuts for the 2021-22 city budget. (Drew Perine, The News Tribune)

TACOMA, Wash. — The city of Tacoma may see a reduction in fire engine service next year.

City Council is considering a proposal for the 2021-22 budget that would reduce the Tacoma Fire Department’s fleet by three engines.

The reduction has led to Tacoma Firefighters IAFF Local 31 union to speak out in a letter to the public with concerns about what it would mean for the city’s service levels.

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“Despite our hard work, we have now been told that the Tacoma City Council is reducing the number of fire engines that are available to provide service to you, the taxpayers of Tacoma,” the letter states. “The plan is to reduce your fire protection nearly 20 percent. That means when you call 911, that fire engine and emergency medical crew you thought were coming may no longer be there.”

TFD was facing $12 million in cuts, including 45 layoffs, due to a budget deficit stemming from COVID-19 impacts, TFD Chief Tory Green said in a city council meeting in October.

TFD proposed launching its own basic life support service, consisting of five units, which is currently contracted out to a separate company, AMR. TFD already supplies advanced life support transportation. Advance life support is for patients that require immediate assistance, while patients in need of basic life support can wait longer.

By providing basic life support services, TFD can participate in a Great Emergency Medical Transportation program that opens a new funding stream of around $25 million in the next biennium and prevents layoffs.

But it also means that TFD needs to move three engines worth of firefighters to basic life support transport units because it doesn’t have enough staff for both.

“There’s no way you can take three engines out of our system and not have longer response times,” Green said Tuesday.

Matt Frank, secretary-treasurer for the Tacoma Firefighters Local 31, said that they’re not against starting basic life support transport in Tacoma, but take issue that it comes at the expense of three engines.

“Our ultimate goal when we come to work every day is we come to provide safety to the citizens,” said Frank, who’s been a Tacoma firefighter for 20 years. “The frustrating part is that if they approve that budget, they’re going to impact the safety we provide.”

Frank said the department and City Council have worked to restore services since the last recession in the mid-2000s.

“We’re concerned that we’re now looking at going backwards,” Frank said.

IMPACTS TO SERVICE

Right now, TFD staffing levels aren’t where they would be in an ideal world.

Currently, TFD has 345 responders when they should have 357, according to a presentation from Green to City Council on Oct. 27. Every six months 24 new recruits join the force through an academy process, helping to make up for any retirements.

TFD’s call volume is also higher than preferred.

Right now, TFD has 16 fire engines. Ideally, an average unit would respond to no more than 2,500 calls per year.

Most of TFD’s engines are exceeding that. In 2019, the average number of calls for engines serving the downtown Tacoma area was 3,189. In the South and Eastside, the average call volume for 2019 was 3,434. The North End was the only area below ideal call volumes at an average of 2,166.

If anything, TFD needs more engines, Green said.

“No engine should be taken out of service,” he said. “But if we’re forced to take an engine out of service, these are some of the things we should factor in.”

The department has not identified which engines would be impacted should City Council approve the budget proposal.

Reducing engine service didn’t sit well with City Council members.

“Having only restored full services at some of our stations in the last budget cycle, I’m very very worried about having three engines down,” Council member Robert Thoms said on Oct. 27.

Council member Conor McCarthy mentioned large fires at Wapato Hills Park and at the port in the last few months.

“I think the shift to BLS makes a lot of sense, but I don’t think it makes sense if the consequence of it is there’s three less engines out there being able to respond to calls,” McCarthy said at Tuesday’s meeting.

OTHER OPTIONS

On Tuesday, TFD brought forward alternative options at the request of the council to see what could be done to mitigate the impacts to response times.

In one option, TFD would delay implementation of three of the five basic life support units, meaning a loss of only two fire engines instead of three.

In another option, three basic life support units would be delayed, and the city would bring on another engine in 2022, leaving only one engine out of service instead of three. This impacts the city’s general fund by $2.2 million.

In the final option, the council could decide not to implement basic life support transports, keeping all three engines in service, but TFD would lose its new funding stream and have to make millions in cuts.

“It isn’t lost on me how significant this proposal is, but the option otherwise would have been less people and still the same amount of work,” Green said Tuesday. “So at least in this proposal as we’ve brought it, it retains the people. And those people are firefighters.”

City Council will decide whether to approve the first reading of the 2021-22 budget on Nov. 17 and can bring an action forward to amend the budget if needed before final approval on Nov. 24.