Response times worsen in brownouts’ wake
The closure of Fire Station 5 at Alameda Point has had big impacts on fire and emergency medical response times in the area it served – and has also affected response times citywide, data presented to the City Council on Tuesday night show.
Fire Chief David Kapler told the council that response times have slipped by as much as two to three minutes for medical and fire calls in District 5, which includes the Point and the ferry terminal and some coverage of the West End. He said the effects have been minimal so far, but that it’s only a matter of time before slowed responses cause a “significant impact” like a death or fire that burns out of control.
“Fortunately, we have not had any significant impacts because of this. We have not had anything burn to the ground, we have not had anybody die because of this,” Kapler told the council.
But Kapler said such incidents could occur. And some council members said they’re concerned that it’s only a matter of time before they do.
“This tells me you’re rolling the dice,” Councilwoman Lena Tam said.
The data show a major drop in the percentage of times that Alameda Fire was able to get its first unit on scene in and around Alameda Point within national response targets. In 2008, Alameda Fire was able to get its first unit on the scene of a District 5 fire within five minutes and 20 seconds, the national standard, 73 percent of the time. In 2009 – after the station was closed – they met the standard only eight percent of the time.
Medical response times in the district also increased dramatically, with initial units reaching the scene within the national standard of five minutes 63 percent of the time in 2008 and 30 percent of the time in 2009.
Citywide, the impacts were less severe, with response times for initial units on fire calls meeting national standards 82 percent of the time in 2008 and 72 percent of the time in 2009. Responses to medical calls dipped slightly, with the first unit on scene 79 percent of the time in 2008 and 75 percent of the time in 2009.
Despite the brownouts and the Station 5 closure, the citywide response times were better this year in some cases than they were in 2006 and 2007, the data – which measure response times between April 1 and October 31 of each year – show.
Kapler said a number of factors – not just staffing – impacted the results, though he said that this year, staffing cuts had a greater impact on the numbers than improvements that have been made over the past few years.
The goal is to meet the national standards – which local standards are to be modeled on – 90 percent of the time.
A structure fire reaches “flashover” between five minutes and eight minutes after it starts, Kapler said, and the structure is “fully involved” eight to 10 minutes after it begins. A heart attack can cause irreversible damage six to eight minutes after it happens, and death eight to 10 minutes after it occurs, he said.
Fire brass presented the data to the council as part of an effort to determine the department’s response goals – and the resources they’ll need to meet them – in the wake of budget challenges that led to company brownouts and the permanent closure of Station 5 on Alameda Point.
Kapler said a number of pending efficiencies – including GPS on fire vehicles, county-funded devices that allow firefighters to control stoplights and changes to the county dispatch system that could prioritize medical calls – could help improve response times.
The city could also consider changing its existing fire stations’ service areas and increasing preventive measures like putting more defibrillators in buildings and boosting safety requirements for high risk buildings.
Tam asked Kapler what role increased staffing could play in helping the department to meet its response times. He said he’d need to do more analysis to figure out what kind of staff the department would need.
“At this time, we’re looking at things we can do budgetarily and economically. The things up there are things we can do,” Kapler said, referring to the technological changes. “There’s a lot of other things that are out of our reach right now, like opening new fire stations and new companies. “