A Closer Look at Ann Arbor’s Fire Station Plan

Proposal would shift from 5 stations to 3; keeps 3-person crews

At a work session held by the Ann Arbor city council on March 12, 2012, fire chief Chuck Hubbard presented the city council with a plan to reconfigure the geographic strategy for protecting the city against fires. It would rely on three stations instead of five, which would include re-activating one existing station and closing three.

Fire Department Response Times

Map 1. Ann Arbor fire chief Chuck Hubbard's plan is to protect the city from fires with three stations (red helmets): Station 1, Station 2, and Station 5. Closed would be Station 3, Station 6 and Station 4 (gray helmets). Station 2 is currently not used and would need to be re-opened. The light blue area is the part of the city that is reachable by at least four fighters within four minutes. Red dots indicate fire locations over the last decade. (Map is de-skewed from the original one provided by the city, with additional labels by The Chronicle. Image links to higher resolution file.)

The reactivated station would be Station 2 (south), located near Packard and Stadium. 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 the 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).

Hubbard contends that the proposal will significantly improve response times for most of the geographic area of the city. Hubbard’s guiding metric for response time is the geographic area that is reachable by at least four firefighters in less than four minutes – a “four-in-four” standard. Four firefighters is the minimum number that must be on scene in order to enter a burning building – to conform with an OSHA “two-in/two-out” regulation.

The existing configuration would provide shorter arrival times for a first-arriving vehicle, but would not provide  a complement of four firefighters on that vehicle. Shifting to a focus of four-in-four – from the current configuration that optimizes fastest first-arrival – reflects a prioritization of fire protection over emergency medical response.

The council was shown a video at the work session that presented results of an April 2010 study done by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that investigated the effect of crew size on task performance. Firefighting responses were studied in controlled conditions by sending four crews at a time to the scene of a structure built for that purpose. The study varied the size of the crews among two-person, three-person, four-person and five-person crews – for a total of 8, 12, 16 and 20 firefighters on scene. The study showed that a responding force composed of four-person crews (16 firefighters on scene) was clearly superior to one composed of three-person crews (12 firefighters on scene) – 25% faster overall.

But with one exception, the new Ann Arbor proposal would not increase the crew size for a given vehicle from the current level (three) to four firefighters. 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. In terms of the study presented in the video, this is called “stagger.”

The NIST study showed an improvement in performance by crews arriving spaced more closely together (close stagger) compared to crews that arrived with longer intervals (far stagger). However, the improvement in firefighting performance due to close stagger was not nearly as large as the improvements based on crew size.

During the council’s discussion, it emerged that the restructuring was not motivated by cost-savings, and that no decrease from the current number of budgeted firefighters – 82 – is expected. The station model does not require formal city council approval, but councilmembers will be considering approval of a recently negotiated contract with the firefighters union at their March 19 meeting. The contract includes operational changes that would allow for more effective deployment of Hubbard’s plan. It provides for firefighters to work more hours, in part by reducing the frequency of a mandatory “code day” when firefighters are not scheduled.

After the jump, we take a look at: (1) some additional maps The Chronicle has created; (2) how the maps fit into the overall response-time picture; and (3) councilmember reaction to Hubbard’s proposal.

Response-Time Maps

The maps presented in the digital information packet presented by the city were graphically skewed – stretched east-to-west. The Chronicle has de-skewed the maps and used image processing to combine information from different maps onto one image. First, we present some background on the standards that underlie the maps.

Response-Time Maps: Four Firefighters in Four Minutes

The key response-time metric driving fire chief Chuck Hubbard’s planned station model is an ability to get a minimum of four fighters to a fire scene within four minutes. The number of firefighters stems from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) revised respiratory protection standard [29 CFR 1910.134]. It’s a “two-in/two-out” rule, for a total of four firefighters:

1910.134(g)(4) Procedures for interior structural firefighting. In addition to the requirements set forth under paragraph (g)(3), in interior structural fires, the employer shall ensure that:
(i) At least two employees enter the IDLH [immediately dangerous to life or health] atmosphere and remain in visual or voice contact with one another at all times;
(ii) At least two employees are located outside the IDLH atmosphere; and
(iii) All employees engaged in interior structural firefighting use SCBAs (self-contained breathing apparatus).

Note 1 to paragraph (g): One of the two individuals located outside the IDLH atmosphere may be assigned to an additional role, such as incident commander in charge of the emergency or safety officer, so long as this individual is able to perform assistance or rescue activities without jeopardizing the safety or health of any firefighter working at the incident.

Note 2 to paragraph (g): Nothing in this section is meant to preclude firefighters from performing emergency rescue activities before an entire team has assembled.

The time of four minutes (240 seconds) is the National Fire Protection Association Standard 1710 for first-arriving companies – a time that is supposed to be met for 90% of fires. From the NFPA standard:

5.2.4 Deployment. Initial Arriving Company. The fire department’s fire suppression resources shall be deployed to provide for the arrival of an engine company within a 240-second travel time to 90 percent of the incidents as established in Chapter 4.

The NFPA standard characterizes minimum staffing levels in terms of “companies,” setting a minimum of four personnel per company, which is consistent with the OSHA two-in/two-out standard. The NFPA 1710 standards allow for the possibility of a company arriving on two different vehicles (apparatus).

A.3.3.13 Company.
For fire suppression and other emergency operations, in some jurisdictions, the response capability of the initial arriving company is configured with two apparatus operating together. This can be a result of apparatus not being configured with seated and belted positions for four personnel, therefore requiring a second vehicle to carry additional personnel. It can also be the result of the fire department’s SOPs [standard operating procedures], which require two apparatus operating together to complete the operational procedures. The objective is to ensure that a minimum of four personnel are assigned to and deployed as a company. …

Getting at least four firefighters to a fire scene using two different vehicles is part of Ann Arbor’s current strategy and will be a part of Hubbard’s proposed station model.

What’s different about Hubbard’s approach, compared to the current configuration of stations, is that the initially-responding trucks delivering firefighters to the scene will come from the same, not different, stations. And the location of those stations is optimized to provide better four-in-four coverage than the current system, or than in the immediate past. The maps demonstrate the improved four-in-four coverage.

Travel-Time Response Maps

Map 1 shows in light blue the four-in-four coverage provided by the three-station configuration in Hubbard’s proposal. The wider colored bands show the coverage for five-minute, six-minute, seven-minute and eight-minute responses. It’s based on an assumption of two three-person crews at Station 1 and at Station 2, but one four-person crew at Station 5. So the light blue area is the sum of areas around each station corresponding to four-minute travel time from that station.

Fire fighter response time map

Map 1. The light blue area is the part of the city that is reachable by at least four firefighters within four minutes. Red dots indicate fire locations over the last decade. (Map is de-skewed from the original one provided by the city, with additional labels by The Chronicle. Image links to higher resolution file.)

Currently, Station 2 is not active, having been closed in the early 2000s. [link to .pdf of June 13, 2004 Ann Arbor News article: "Fire Station Quietly Closed"] The Ann Arbor fire department staffs a crew at each of the other five stations. With three-person crews, computing the area of four-in-four coverage requires considering the intersections (overlaps) of the four-minute travel time area around each station.

Overlaying the city’s current-coverage map with the planned-coverage map shows the improvement, presented in Map 2. The darker blue area (not quite completely inside the lighter blue area) is the current four-in-four coverage:


Map 2. The darker blue area is the part of the city that is currently reachable by at least four firefighters within four minutes. Red dots indicate fire locations over the last decade. (Map is de-skewed from the original one provided by the city, with additional labels by The Chronicle. Image links to higher resolution file.)

In Map 2, the darker blue area in the south of the city is the overlap of the areas for Station 6 and Station 4. The patch of darker blue in the vicinity of Station 2 is the overlap of the coverage area for Station 1 and Station 4. The largest chunk of darker blue is the combination of overlaps of Station 1 with Station 6, Station 3 and Station 5.

In the past, Station 1 was consistently staffed with two three-person crews, for a total of six crews across five stations. Even when the department was budgeted for six more firefighters than it has now, it was a struggle to maintain staffing for those six crews. Former fire chief Dominick Lanza had told the city council last year at a February 2011 work session that he’d had to start implementing rolling station closures – as a strategy for having only five crews on some days. Station 1 was staffed with two crews under the rolling closure plan. Lanza characterized it as a situation where the fire department had checks but no money to write them.

When the city council’s FY 2012 budget dropped the number of positions to 82, newly-appointed fire chief Chuck Hubbard opted to keep the five fire stations open, but to staff the second company at Station 1 (the tower truck crew) only when personnel are available.

So it’s worth considering what the four-in-four coverage for the city looked like in the recent past, when two companies staffed the downtown Station 1. That coverage is presented in Map 3 in very dark blue. With Station 1 itself able to send at least four firefighters (on two different vehicles), the entire area reachable from Station 1 in four minutes would count as four-in-four coverage area, with no need to consider overlaps from other stations. Any overlaps between stations other than Station 1 would also need to be added in as part of this coverage area. The coverage area for Station 1 was taken from the set of maps previously provided to The Chronicle by the city of Ann Arbor.


Map 3. The very dark blue area is the part of the city that was reachable in the past by at least four firefighters within four minutes. Red dots indicate fire locations over the last decade. The Chronicle did not attend to count the dots on the maps, reflected in the ??? on the legend. (Map is de-skewed from the original one provided by the city, with additional labels by The Chronicle. Image links to higher resolution file.)

So even when compared to the immediate past, when the fire department was able to staff two crews at the downtown Station 1, Hubbard’s proposal reflects an improvement in four-in-four coverage. [Here's an animated .gif that cycles through the three maps: fire coverage images]

Response Time: A More Complete Picture

The ability to deliver at least four firefighters to a fire scene within four minutes is only one consideration in Ann Arbor fire chief Chuck Hubbard’s proposed station model. The study conducted by NIST, for example, did not look at the performance of single crews in isolation. Rather, the study investigated the performance at fire scenes of a four-crew assignment. In the study, it was the performances of four two-person crews, four three-person crews, four four-person crews, and four five-person crews that were compared. [.pdf of NIST study]

Response Time: Full-Alarm Assignment

The four crews in the NIST study correspond to the NFPA standard of a “full-alarm assignment” – that is, not just the minimum four firefighters. For a full-alarm assignment, the NFPA deployment standard states that resources should be deployed such that 90% of the time, a full-alarm assignment can travel to the scene within eight minutes: Initial Full Alarm Assignment Capability. The fire department shall have the capability to deploy an initial full alarm assignment within a 480-second travel time to 90 percent of the incidents as established in Chapter 4.

For a full-alarm assignment, the station model proposed by Hubbard reflects an improvement in full-alarm response. In Map 4, the future eight-minute full-alarm coverage area (lighter pink plus darker pink) is combined on the same map with the current eight-minute full-alarm coverage (just the darker pink):


Map 4. The darker pink shows the current area of coverage within eight minutes for a full-alarm response (not just the minimum four firefighters). The lighter pink area, including the darker pink area, is the coverage area for an eight-minute full-alarm response under Hubbard's planned station model. Red dots indicate fire locations over the last decade. (Map is de-skewed from the original one provided by the city, with additional labels by The Chronicle. Image links to higher resolution file.)


Response Time: Other Components Besides Travel Time

Hubbard’s proposed station model changes the geographic distribution of fire protection resources throughout the city, so it’s natural that it will affect the time it takes firefighters to travel to a fire. Hubbard’s proposal is optimized for travel time to deliver four firefighters to a fire scene in under four minutes. The four minutes in question is travel time – the maps were generated based on distance and speed limits.

But travel time is only one component of the fire department’s total response time, starting from the time a call is placed to 911. Huron Valley Ambulance (HVA) handles the fire dispatching for Ann Arbor’s fire department. And HVA’s computer-aided dispatch system (CAD) allows for recording of distinct time points for each vehicle during the fire department response. The National Fire Protection Association sets forth a standard that is supposed to be met 90% of the time for each of the time intervals in the response. The times given below are for the NFPA 90% standard.

Timepoint 1: The time when the emergency alarm is received by the public safety operator.
Interval: 1-2 [Dispatch Time (or Call Processing Time)] 60 seconds
Timepoint 2: The time when sufficient information is known to the dispatcher, and the relevant fire station is notified of the emergency.
Interval: 2-3 [Turnout Time] 60 seconds
Timepoint 3: The time at which a fire truck is en route to the emergency incident.
Interval: 3-4 [Response Time] 240 seconds (4 minutes), 480 seconds for full-alarm assignment of vehicles and personnel.
Timepoint 4: The time when a fire truck arrives at the scene.

The Chronicle has previously reported some of the challenges in using just the data stored in the CAD system or just the official AAFD reports for analysis of Ann Arbor fire department response times. The CAD data contains regular inconsistencies, which are nonetheless explainable. For example, it’s not uncommon to find time points recorded that result in a 3-4 second interval – not plausible as accurate for any of the phases of the fire department response.

The regular interval could be explained by a fire dispatcher receiving an “on scene” radio report from a vehicle that had not previously been coded as having been dispatched or having responded – the dispatcher would code the previous time points as completed before coding the arrival time, in rapid sequence. [Link to a Google spreadsheet summarizing prior Chronicle analysis: AAFD fire response data]

The recent International City/County Management Association (ICMA) report on Ann Arbor’s fire department summarizes response time data for the period of March 1, 2010, to Feb. 28, 2011. [.pdf of ICMA Ann Arbor Fire Department Study]

Based on the data provided in that study, The Chronicle has generated the charts below. For some of the charts, similar versions are included in the ICMA study report. For all charts, the emergency medical response calls are included along with the fire calls. The data are for the first-arriving unit.

Ann Arbor Fire Department Response Times

Chart 1. AAFD dispatch (blue), turnout (red) and travel (yellow) time averages, by hour of the day. (Image links to higher resolution file.)

Ann Arbor Fire Department Response Times

Chart 2. AAFD response time averages for turnout (red), travel (yellow) and total response (blue) time by time of day, compared to the NFPA 90% standard. (Image links to higher resolution file.)

Ann Arbor Fire Department Response Times

Chart 3. AAFD average time gap to NFPA standard for dispatch (blue), turnout (red) and travel (yellow) by time of day. Bars below zero reflect times slower than the NFPA 90% standard. (Image links to higher resolution file.)

The average travel time of the first arriving unit is within the NFPA standard, while the turnout time and dispatch times are not. So if the actual performance of AAFD in reaching fire scenes with a fire engine is within the four-minute standard, why is Hubbard proposing to change the station model? It’s because that first-arriving engine, with its three-person crew, is not currently delivering four firefighters to the fire scene, which is required by the two-in/two-out rule.

In Charts 1-3, it’s apparent that the two non-travel phases of response are typically slower from 9 p.m. through 6 a.m. than they are at other times of the day. The difference in performance is not attributable to different personnel working that time of day, because AAFD firefighters work 24-hour shifts.

Of the two phases of response that appear to be outside the NFPA 90% standard, it’s turnout time that is immediately under AAFD control. Dispatch time is under the control of Huron Valley Ambulance.

At the press briefing held earlier in the day on March 12, Hubbard seemed essentially dismissive of the turnout time analysis, saying that the only way for ICMA to have measured it was by standing and timing firefighters with a stopwatch. He noted that getting into their gear is something that firefighters train for on a regular basis.

Response Time: Stagger

During councilmember deliberations, Hubbard stressed more than once that his revised station model provides better four-in-four coverage – but not because it puts four firefighters on a single truck (except for Station 5). The minimum four firefighters would arrive on two trucks, arriving on the fire scene together, having departed from the same station. The advantage of the station model highlighted by Hubbard is one of increased four-in-four coverage area.

Another advantage identified in the NIST study comes from reduced spacing between arrival times of the four vehicles sent to a fire – that is, reduced “stagger.” A station model that plans for vehicles to arrive together, like Hubbard’s does, reduces stagger. Recall that the NIST study measured the performance of firefighting forces on scene with 8, 12, 16 and 20 firefighters, which correspond to four crews of 2, 3, 4 and 5 firefighters each. One of the variables measured was the spacing between arrival times of the crews making up the on-scene force. Close stagger was defined as one minute between arriving crews. Far stagger was defined as two minutes between arriving crews.

In Chart 4 below from the NIST report, the set of four bars on the left shows results for the “close stagger” crews, while the four bars on the right show results for “far stagger.”

Stagger and Crew Size

Chart 4. From the NIST study, the impact of stagger and crew size on overall time to complete tasks at the fire scene. (Image links to higher resolution file.)

From Chart 4 it’s clear that while the advantage of the closely staggered crews is statistically significant, the amount of the advantage due to stagger is not nearly as great as the advantage due to crew size. Changing to Hubbard’s new station model from the current model corresponds to a contrast between the 3-person close stagger (20:30) and 3-person far stagger (21:17). Moving to four-person crews for all Ann Arbor fire trucks (which Hubbard explained at the work session would require adding 30 additional firefighters) would give the department around a five-minute advantage in on-scene task time.

Council Deliberations

Councilmembers had several questions for Ann Arbor fire chief Chuck Hubbard at the March 12 work session. At the press briefing earlier in the day, Hubbard had made clear that he was taking responsibility for the station model, saying that he had developed it himself. This report of the council’s discussion is organized thematically.

Council Deliberations: What’s a “Standard”?

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) wanted to know how many communities meet the NFPA 1710 standards – for responding to 90% of calls within four minutes. Hubbard stated that all departments have a goal to achieve those standards. However, he said he didn’t personally know of any departments that meet all of the NFPA 1710 standards – that’s difficult to do. Hohnke characterized it as an agreed-on industry standard, an appropriate target, but it’s not a standard in terms of something that most communities meet.

Hubbard confirmed that the distinction Hohnke was drawing is accurate – between a standard as something that’s a goal, and a standard that’s the usual state of affairs for most communities. Hubbard stressed again that the issue is not just getting a truck to the scene, but also getting the four personnel to the scene.

Mayor John Hieftje asked Hubbard whether the cities that Ann Arbor compares itself to meet the NFPA 1710 standards. Hubbard said that to his knowledge they do not. It’s difficult to do, given the current economic state, he said.

Council Deliberations: Geography of Hubbard’s Station Model

Tony Derezinski (Ward 2) noted the map shows that the three-station model Hubbard was proposing gives better coverage in the high-risk areas. He asked why Station 2 was closed initially. Hubbard said he did not know why it was closed – it had happened several years ago when he was a lieutenant and he was not part of that decision-making. Hubbard said Station 2 is in a prime location, because it can go in all directions.

Ann Arbor fire chief Chuck Hubbard

Ann Arbor fire chief Chuck Hubbard at the March 12, 2012 city council working session.

Derezinski wondered what the impact of the East Stadium bridges construction had on Station 2. Hubbard allowed that the current closure of the bridges does hinder the ability of Station 2 trucks to get to the western part of the city. He said he went out and drove it himself. Getting to Station 3′s current area from Station 2 would use the Stadium bridges as the route, he said, if it weren’t closed. But that area would also have trucks coming from Station 1.

Derezinski told Hubbard that the proposal was really “pulling the rabbit out of the hat” by improving coverage with fewer stations. He said he expected that the new station model would be monitored closely for actual response times.

Marcia Higgins (Ward 4) noted that under Hubbard’s station model, no stations would be located in the western part of town. She also wondered about fire protection coverage on football Saturdays – with the associated traffic congestion. She wondered if Hubbard would look at a different deployment for football Saturdays to provide better coverage. Hubbard allowed that would be an option. In the past, AAFD had staffed differently on high-volume days, he said.

Higgins described some “pretty horrendous fires” in the last few years in the vicinity of where Station 6 is now, giving Lake Village and Meadowbrook as examples. Those areas are no longer in the four-in-four response time area, Higgins contended.

Hubbard told her those areas are still in the four-minute zone. The area Higgins was trying to describe, she said, is in the five-minute response area. Given the importance of even a minute, she was concerned about that. Hubbard allowed that response time is important, but it’s a question of what you have when you get there. Getting a truck to the scene is not the goal, but rather getting the truck plus the personnel to the scene is what’s important, he said.

Council Deliberations: Crew Size, Staffing Levels

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) said there’ll be some people who see the video presentation and become concerned because the Ann Arbor fire department doesn’t have four people on a truck. But she said her understanding was that the fire department always has had a four-person-on-scene strategy – two-in/two-out. Hubbard confirmed that the OSHA requirement was two-in/two-out and characterized it as a law. Do we follow the OSHA law? Briere asked. Hubbard confirmed that the Ann Arbor fire department does follow the OSHA requirement, but “in a slower pace.” The proposal, Hubbard said, is to get the four firefighters to the scene faster.

Briere confirmed with Hubbard that the fire department has never had a situation where two firefighters by themselves were fighting a fire. She wanted that to be clear. Mayor John Hieftje followed up by confirming with Hubbard that Ann Arbor’s fire department currently has three-person crews and they get two trucks to the scene, to get the four firefighters needed for the two-in/two-out standard.

Paul Ganz Jane Lumm (Ward 2)

At the left is Paul Ganz, DTE Energy regional manager, who attended the city council's March 12 work session, which included the topic of the clean up of the MichCon site near the Broadway bridges. Councilmember Jane Lumm (Ward 2) is not alarmed that she lacks any neckwear to rival Ganz's.

Later in the session, Briere said she’d looked at the maps ahead of time and had reviewed the ICMA study. She reminded Hubbard that as the two had previously talked about the proposal, they’d agreed that fire protection is like insurance – nobody wants it and everybody has to pay for it, and if you do without it you feel like you’re in danger. A few years ago, she said, the council was asked to look at a more limited response from more than one station – two firefighters from Station 1 and two firefighters from Station 3 and everything would be covered, the council was told.

Looking at the maps, Briere said, that description did not seem to her as “clean” as she would have liked it to be. Briere asked if information had changed, or if he was just looking at staffing differently. Hubbard said the information hasn’t changed. What he’s done, Hubbard said, is to consolidate resources. By having trucks respond together, they can get to the areas quicker and at the same time.

One engine pulling up by itself brings three firefighters, Hubbard said. The two maps show the same kind of information, Hubbard said – the four-in-four coverage provided by two trucks. [See Map 2 for the contrast displayed in one map.] But by consolidating resources, a lot more area is covered, he said. Briere concluded that it’s not so much a matter of the number of stations, but the effect of the number of crews at each station, which Hubbard confirmed.

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) allowed that people who live inside the new light-blue coverage area will take some comfort in that. The people who live outside of that area might have previously at least had the comfort of living near a fire station. Are there areas that have a decrease in the four-in-four coverage? Taylor asked. No, said Hubbard. He then ticked through the significance of the different color bands outside the light-blue area, which indicate longer four-in-four response times.

Taylor concluded from the maps that for someone who lives near a station that is closing, the four-in-four response time would still improve.

Ann Arbor fire chief Chuck Hubbard and Christopher Taylor (Ward 3)

Ann Arbor fire chief Chuck Hubbard, left, and councilmember Christopher Taylor (Ward 3).

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) asked Hubbard what his ideal “magic, perfect” number of firefighters would be, noting that the outgoing police chief, Barnett Jones, had been asked the same question with respect to sworn officers – Jones had said 150. Hubbard said that it would be 88 firefighters. [There are currently 82 firefighters employed budgeted by the city.] Lumm confirmed with Hubbard that he was factoring in the tower truck at Station 1 with the figure of 88 firefighters.

Lumm noted that the move to three stations is based on current staffing levels and she applauded Hubbard’s efforts to optimize the resources he had. She went on to say that she felt a more appropriate question that the community and the city council should ask is: What is the appropriate level of resources needed to meet or exceed the standards? She asked for Hubbard’s thoughts on the idea of determining the amount of resources required, as opposed to simply optimizing what he currently had.

Hubbard understood Lumm’s question to be essentially: What would it take to achieve the four-in-four coverage without closing any stations? He told her he’d have to hire at least 30 additional firefighters. Mayor John Hieftje then questioned whether that approach would actually deliver better service than Hubbard’s proposal. Hubbard’s answer: Yes, absolutely. Lumm said she felt the video showed that a five-person crew was ideal in terms of industry standards.

Later during the work session Lumm followed up on the same point. Lumm wanted to know if the same kind of coverage could be achieved by keeping all five current stations open and adding a three-person crew to Station 1 to make sure the tower truck was always staffed. No, said Hubbard, each truck at the other four stations would need to be staffed with four firefighters per truck, which would require 30 additional firefighters. [What Lumm had in mind appears to correspond to Map 3.]

Lumm wanted to know why Hubbard thought it was good enough, under his proposed station model, to meet the standard only 70% of the time [490 out of 681 fire locations]. Hubbard said, “It’s not that I think it’s good enough,” but rather that staffing levels dictate this approach. He said he was working within his means.

During her initial remarks, Lumm said she realized that response to fire calls is important, but said that response to medical emergencies is important as well.

Council Deliberations: EMS Response

Jane Lumm (Ward 2) asked for data on emergency medical response times. Hubbard told her that EMS responses by the Ann Arbor fire department average about 5 minutes in the current setup. Jerry Zapolnik, chief operating officer with Huron Valley Ambulance, stepped to the podium and confirmed the 5-minute average EMS response time by the fire department. HVA is about 6.1 or 6.2 minutes on average.

Lumm said she’d visited Station 5 and learned during her visit that when AAFD and HVA both respond to a call, HVA needs backup from the AAFD, because HVA might not have access to a facility. She gave Cranbrook Towers as a possible example. Zapolnik confirmed that is the case. Currently, some of the structures have a “Knox Box,” which is only available to the fire department to gain access to the building and to the apartments within a building. It’s a security issue, he said.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) asked what other communities in Michigan were adopting the model of a four-person crew with multiple trucks arriving on the scene. Hubbard clarified that his proposal is not to put four firefighters on a single truck. His proposal will still require getting two trucks to the scene, he said, it’s just that those trucks will come from the same station and arrive at the same time. Kunselman concluded that AAFD would still be doing EMS runs – how would that be handled? Would two trucks be sent on EMS runs? No, replied Hubbard, only one fire truck would be sent on an EMS run, just like AAFD currently does.

Council Deliberations: Tall Buildings, Tower Truck

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) noted that in the media there’s been a lot of conversation about the condition of the tower truck and some of the ladder trucks. She noted that Hubbard had not addressed that issue. She asked for confirmation that one ladder truck and the tower truck are currently out for repair. No, Hubbard said, Ladder Truck 5 is back in service. The tower is currently out of service. Briere asked what the plan for the tower truck is – replace or repair?

Hubbard told Briere the plan for the tower truck is to replace it. He’s currently working on the request for proposals (RFP) that needs to be put out to bidders, he said. He’s met with the city’s fleet manager, he said, and AAFD will be purchasing a new tower truck. Later mayor John Hieftje drew out the fact that an already-built truck could be purchased and acquired much more rapidly than ordering one built specifically to match Ann Arbor’s requirements.  AAFD appears ready to pursue acquisition of an already-built truck.

In the meantime, Briere asked, what would AAFD do if it needed a tower truck to fight a fire? Hubbard explained that AAFD would need to call Pittsfield Township or the city of Ypsilanti. Briere wanted to know how long that would take to get from those two communities to an Ann Arbor fire. Hubbard indicated that he’d have to check into that for an exact answer – it would depend on a variety of factors. But it would take longer than if the AAFD had its own, he said.

Briere said she’d been asked about the safety of tall buildings. She said her recollection was that a tower truck only reaches about 100 feet up. Hubbard confirmed that the height of the tower is 100 feet, but when you take into consideration the position of the truck away from the building, the angle of inclination knocks some of that height off. Briere drew out the fact that the tower would only reach about seven or eight stories. Some of the buildings in downtown Ann Arbor that have either been approved or already been built exceed that height.

How can fire safety be assured for those buildings? asked Briere. If they’re above the eighth floor, Hubbard said, “We have to go in and get ‘em.” The bucket from the tower won’t reach them, he said. Briere asked if buildings are equipped with fire-suppression systems and asked how those systems work. Hubbard indicated that all new construction would be equipped with fire suppression. There may be a few older buildings that don’t have such systems, Hubbard allowed.

Briere wanted to know how well a building’s built-in fire-suppression system would work, compared to a ladder truck getting water onto a fire on the seventh floor. Hubbard said such systems work pretty well – they put out a lot of water. If the fire is caught at the right stage, the systems can really slow down the fire, he said.

Median Age 2000 with 2010 Election Results

Map 5. Age. This map was generated by the city's GIS staff showing election turnout (green dots) overlaid with median age from 2000 census data. Though a decade old, the map tends to support Stephen Kunselman's point about emergency medical response – many older residents (the darker brown shades) live away from the center of the city. (Image links to higher resolution .pdf file)

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) noted that Hubbard had described the new strategy as going from an EMS-based strategy to a firefighting strategy. Kunselman asked Hubbard to elaborate on that. The point, Hubbard replied, is that EMS will not be the fire department’s primary function. Instead, the primary function will be fire protection. AAFD will still respond to EMS calls as first-responders, Hubbard said, but the EMS primary function would be handled by HVA. Kunselman asked what that would mean for someone who lives out by Packard and Platt and would be seeing Station 4 close. Will it take longer to get to a heart-attack victim? Hubbard said that depends on where the HVA ambulance is.

Zapolnik stated that HVA’s response time would not change under the new station model proposed by Hubbard. So it would be around 6.1-6.2 minutes. He described the dynamic deployment model used for parking ambulances in different locations at different times – depending on call volume, available resources and traffic patterns – to optimize the HVA response time.

Kunselman concluded from the faster AAFD average response time (5 minutes) compared to HVA (6.1-6.2 minutes) that under the current configuration, AAFD arrives first on the scene more often than HVA. So Kunselman concluded that this would change – HVA would get there first more often. Zapolnik indicated that currently it’s about 50-50 as far as AAFD and HVA arriving first on scene. [The ICMA fire report gives 1,724 cases of HVA arriving before AAFD and 2,020 cases of AAFD arriving before HVA.]

Zapolnik indicated it’s a matter of where the ambulances are stationed. He also pointed out that for cardiac arrest scenarios, “getting electricity to the individual” is paramount in ensuring survivability. So he pointed out that Ann Arbor police officers also carry automated external defibrillators (AEDs) in their vehicles as part of the response chain.

Kunselman asked what the likelihood is of HVA stepping up to add another vehicle to the mix. Zapolnik indicated that as demand increases and response requirements increase, and the population gets older, HVA would add resources to meet those demands, he said.

Kunselman allowed that fire protection is important, but noted that more of the city’s older population lives away from the central part of the city. So he’s concerned about that issue.

Council Deliberations: Budget

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) clarified with Hubbard that his proposal is not driven by a cost-savings motive, but rather to enhance fire protection. Taylor allowed that there’d be some cost to bring Station 2 back into shape for fire service. At the press briefing earlier in the day, Hubbard had characterized those costs as initially nominal, but allowed that the building might need a new roof.

Sabra Briere (Ward 1) referred to a fire department budget analysis that had been given before the labor contract was recently settled. And she figured the new station model would have some impact. She wondered when the council would have information relevant to the budget that it will have to approve in May. City administrator Steve Powers noted that the collective bargaining agreement with the firefighters union would be on the March 19 agenda and the impact of that contract would be provided by then.

Ann Arbor city administrator Steve Powers

Ann Arbor city administrator Steve Powers.

Tom Crawford, the city’s chief financial officer, described the contract, which has been ratified by the union. It will have a slight increase in cost of about a couple hundred thousand dollars, he said. But what came with that contract are some changes in scheduling and other operational changes that Hubbard wanted. Those changes would allow for more effective deployment of Hubbard’s plan. The 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.

At the press briefing earlier in the day, Powers had described the changes in the labor contract as helpful to Hubbard’s plan, but it did not rely on those changes for its implementation. Crawford noted that the city’s two-year budget plan had called for the reduction of the current staff level of 82 firefighters to 77 – eliminating five position. The new contract would allow a recommendation of maintaining the 82 positions.

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) noted that 88 was Hubbard’s dream staffing size, so Kunselman wondered what it would take to get to that point from a budget perspective. Crawford said that something he’s watching is the level of state grants to communities that have public institutions requiring fire protection, but that do not pay property taxes. [For Ann Arbor, it's the University of Michigan that requires substantial fire protection resources, for which the city receives no property taxes.]

Crawford noted that the level of those grants has not been fully funded for years, but the city’s lobbyist in Lansing was working hard on Ann Arbor’s behalf. [The city employs Governmental Consultant Services Inc. as a lobbyist. GCSI's Kirk Profit is the city's point person in Lansing.] Crawford said he didn’t know how sustainable increases in those state grants might be. Other than that, Crawford said, he’d continue to work to identify the key needs and priorities and work on those. Kunselman noted that according to the new maps, UM would have better coverage, so that information should be made available to the city’s lobbyist.

Council Deliberations: Fatalities, Staffing Levels

Christopher Taylor (Ward 3) then brought up the issue of fire fatalities in the city, characterizing them as fortunately very few and episodic.

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5)  and Ann Arbor city administrator Steve Powers

City councilmember Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) and Ann Arbor city administrator Steve Powers.

Those deaths have taken place in the context of a challenged economic environment that has affected the fire department in terms of the number of staff, Taylor said. He asked if in Hubbard’s professional opinion the fatalities and staffing levels were linked. Hubbard indicated that for the cases he was familiar with, the two were not linked.

Carsten Hohnke (Ward 5) followed up on Taylor’s question about fatalities by describing an opinion column [written by Stephen Ranzini] published in AnnArbor.com that claimed a “tight statistical correlation” between fatalities in fires and reduced staffing levels in Ann Arbor’s fire department. [The total fatalities over the 20-year span from 1992 to 2011 were presented in the column as totaling 15, with 12 of them coming since 2006.]

Hohnke told Hubbard that he was glad to hear that from Hubbard’s perspective there was not a relationship between the two sets of data. Hohnke then alluded to his credentials as the holder of a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by describing himself as the “last rehabilitated scientist” on the council. He went on to describe the statistical relationship between those data sets as “absolutely insignificant.” He allowed that the city faces some significant challenges in how to structure the fire department. But that discussion, he said, is not helped by the kind of “blatant misinformation” in the column. He went on to say he “was a little bit surprised that AnnArbor.com didn’t do a better job of editing that.”

Council Deliberations: Implementation

Stephen Kunselman (Ward 3) asked how the new station model would be measured for effectiveness, and if it would be possible to reverse course if it proved not to be effective. City administrator Steve Powers noted there’s no plan to dispose of the closed stations. They’d remain as part of the city’s inventory. Fire chief Chuck Hubbard said the AAFD would keep an eye on several things – responses to fires and whether they’re putting fires out more safely. He’d mainly focus on measuring fire suppression responses – emergency medical responses would not be the focus, he said. If it looks like fires are getting bigger and the fire department is not getting there fast enough, then it’s possible to go back or try something else.

The station model does not require a formal city council approval.

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  1. March 18, 2012 at 8:59 pm | permalink

    I am happy about the thought of station 2 reopening for purely selfish reasons. I can’t help but wonder if the maps take into account the stadium bridges or not, and what the difference is in coverage for somewhere like the Lawton neighborhood.

  2. By Ken
    March 19, 2012 at 8:11 am | permalink

    Correct me if I am wrong, as I recall when Station 2 was closed, the Mayor and Roger Fraser both stated this was a logical choice due to the fact that Station 2 had only a Ladder truck assigned. Ladder 5 (North Campus) and Tower 1 (Downtown) would be able to handle any need for a Ladder truck.

    I believe that Station 2 was the first victim in reducing the budget for the Fire Department. I am curious as to what we will have to pay out to re-open Station 2 and close down the other 3 stations.

  3. March 19, 2012 at 10:07 am | permalink

    Wow. The depth of coverage and level of analysis at the Chronicle continues to amaze me.

  4. By Walter Cramer
    March 19, 2012 at 10:24 pm | permalink

    It’d be interesting to see where the boundary of the Ann Arbor Fire District (or whatever the AAFD’s coverage area is called) on the maps. And what happens when the Pittsfield Twp. FD is closer to a fire (than the AAFD), as appears to have often been the case?

    For EMS response time, I’d think HVA could park a (2-man) ambulance in the perfect spot far cheaper than the AAFD could provide an (obviously more flexible) engine and crew. But deciding which was a better use of funds (at what time of day?) might get require a long analysis.

    Maybe it’s just That Other Local Paper’s tornado coverage, but I get the impression that our Chronicle is putting out more content (certainly with fewer ads) than the (still far larger) staff Over There is.

  5. By Tom Whitaker
    March 20, 2012 at 9:14 am | permalink

    Closed fire stations = potential warming centers?

  6. By Joey Bagadonuts
    March 20, 2012 at 6:59 pm | permalink

    AAFD beware My Dept went this and this is just politics blowing smoke up ur a s. Their minds are made up, go to 3 stations and reduce manpower, and bring on the automatic aid,you know steal from Paul to pay Peter