Fire Protection May Rest on 3 Stations

At a work session held March 12, 2012, the Ann Arbor city council heard a proposal from fire chief Chuck Hubbard that would essentially redistribute existing staffing and resource levels across three fire stations instead of five. Hubbard contends that the proposal will significantly improve response times for most of the geographic area of the city.

Most councilmembers seemed generally receptive to Hubbard’s proposal, but were cautious and in a few cases skeptical. The proposal does not require city council approval. At a press briefing earlier in the day, Hubbard indicated that the new station model could be implemented in July 2012.

The proposal relies on maintaining the current total staffing level of 82 firefighters. That represents a departure from the two-year plan presented to the city council last year, which called for reducing to a total of 77 firefighters. Hubbard stated at the work session that he’d ideally like to have 88 firefighters.

A recent labor contract, already ratified by the firefighters union, will be on the city council’s March 19 agenda. The cost of that contract will be only a few hundred thousand dollars more expensive than the old contract, the city’s CFO Tom Crawford said at the work session. That contract provides for firefighters working more hours, in part by reducing the frequency of a mandatory “code day” when firefighters are not scheduled. A weekly effort will increase from 50.4 hours to 54 hours.

The new station proposal would involve a north-center-south distribution of stations, and would include closing three stations, but reactivating one. The reactivated station would be Station 2 (south), located near Packard and Stadium, which would require nominal work to put back in serviceable condition.

Also remaining active would be Station 1 (center), located at Fifth and Huron in downtown Ann Arbor, as well as Station 5 (north), located on Beal off of Plymouth Road in the northern part of the city. Closed would be: Station 6 (located in southern part of the city, in the Briarwood Mall area), Station 3 (on Jackson, in the western part of the city) and Station 4 (in the eastern part of the city, south of Washtenaw Avenue on Huron Parkway).

The current station model distributes one truck with a crew of three firefighters to each of five stations. Based on modeling, the geographic area currently reachable by AAFD with at least four firefighters within four minutes would cover only 242 (35%) out of 681 actual fire locations recorded in the city in the last decade. That standard is important, because of an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) “two-in/two-out” law, which requires at least four firefighters to be on scene before a firefighter can enter a burning building.

Under the staffing proposal, the modeling shows that 490 (72%) out of the 681 fires would be reachable by four firefighters within four minutes. The council was shown a video at the work session that presented results of a study that investigated the crew size on task performance. A four-person crew was clearly superior to a three-person crew. But with one exception, the new Ann Arbor proposal would not increase the crew size for a given vehicle from three to four. The exception would be for the ladder truck at Station 5, which would have a crew complement of four. At a briefing for the press held earlier in the day, Hubbard described part of the advantage of his proposal as allowing for two trucks to arrive together, departing from the same station, to coordinate their activity at the fire scene.

The distribution of resources among the three active stations would be as follows: Station 1 – two engines, one tower, one mini pumper or rescue, one battalion chief; Station 2 – two engines, one mini pumper or rescue; Station 5 – one ladder truck.

The three-station proposal reflects a strategy for fire protection that is not based as much on the fire department’s medical response function as it was previously. According to Hubbard, in remarks made at a press briefing earlier in the day, Huron Valley Ambulance (HVA) – the primary medical response provider in the city – has been a part of the discussion and is prepared to integrate Ann Arbor’s three-station system into their ambulance deployment. At the work session, Jerry Zapolnik, HVA’s chief operating officer, indicated that HVA would continue to provide medical response coverage using its dynamic deployment model.

This brief was filed from the second floor council chambers at city hall, located at 301 E. Huron. A more detailed report will follow: [link]