Last week, I woke up in the middle of the night to an impossibly loud fire alarm. I checked the time and it was around 1:30 a.m. In the absence of cats and plants, I spent about 30 seconds looking around my midtown apartment to figure out if there was anything worth saving. I grabbed my cell phone, my laptop and my passport.
Downstairs, my neighbors’ cats and dogs were going at it, so loud they almost dimmed the alarm. By the time firefighters arrived, some of my neighbors were commenting on their slow response. There was no emergency but my downstairs neighbor Bob recalled that “we must have been standing out front for 10 to 15 minutes or so before they arrived.”
After the experience, I got curious. I found a recent report that calculates Sacramento’s average response time as being two minutes longer than the NFPA’s standard operating guideline recommendation of five minutes.
Sacramento is growing. We are almost half a million people and 35,000 businesses. This keeps just 507 firefighting personnel very busy.
The report the Sacramento Fire Department presented to city council this summer found “The City’s current fire deployment system does not meet the Department’s existing response time goal, nor align with best practice desired response times.” Our firefighters are not getting to fires quick enough.
Addressing the City Council, a Citygate Associates consultant said, “For your firefighting engines and those four-member crews in the districts, only one of 24 stations performed to hit 90 percent of the incidents within seven minutes. That begins when the dispatcher says hello to arrival; when they are beginning to intervene in the situation.”
Sacramento fire takes almost two minutes longer to arrive at emergencies than the national best practice recommendation for urban areas.
Every minute counts when it comes to fire, which doubles in size by the minute. When it comes to medical emergencies, say somebody is having a stroke, they are losing millions of brain cells every minute. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, every minute that a stroke is untreated, the brain is losing 1.9 million neurons.
The study doesn’t blame the firefighters, instead pointing fingers at increased traffic, population growth and post-recession job recovery.
I wanted to see the struggle for myself, so I tried to do a ride-along but the fire department said it takes weeks to approve me. Instead, I decided to ride alongside the fire trucks. I downloaded an app which alerts you whenever an emergency is reported and waited for emergency pings to come through.
The first call I went to was a false alarm, which firefighters said happens often, but they have to go to all of them. By the time I got to the second one, they were gone. I crossed paths with them as they were leaving the third call. The teenagers who called them said they took about six minutes to arrive. This is the same time I calculated they took from the time I got the fourth ping to when I saw them arriving at the scene.
The response times that I observed were around the same as the study's estimate -- around six to seven minutes. I asked Chris Harvey, spokesman for Sacramento Fire Department about the delayed responses.
“So as the population in Sacramento grows and also as we expand into the suburbs a little bit more and the number of people grows, there’s more likelihood that any given fire engine or truck is going to be on a call whether it’s a medical aid or a fire or a vehicle accident,” he said. “It’s going to take the next closest engine; it’s going to have to come into that area.”
Construction, Harvey said, was a problem.
“An example of that is I-80 across the north of Sacramento," he said. "A lot of those lanes have been reduced to one lane and if there’s a call that require our firefighters to get on the freeway there’s no shoulder on either side for them to get onto so that slows our response times”
Harvey also noted the newly opened Golden 1 Center.
"Any place in Sac where there’s construction -- that’s going to slow our response times.”
It seems, however, the biggest issue is staffing. Harvey says Sacramento Fire Department is short almost 90 firefighters. “The reason why that number is so short is because our agency like many agencies in California and around the nation are still recovering from the recession,” he said.
“During that time of the recession we were not hiring firefighters so as firefighters retired or went to other agencies we were not able to hire and so as that number grew,” Harvey said.
Many of those openings are being filled by firefighters getting overtime -- which might actually cost more than new hires -- and those expenses are currently being investigated by the city auditor.
Sacramento’s population is projected to grow by 33 percent over the next 20 years, but it’s not just as simple as hiring more firefighters, because good recruits may be getting better jobs elsewhere.
According to the department’s website, Sac Fire firefighters make just over $61,000 per year starting out. Compare that to a Bay Area city like Oakland, where firefighters starting pay is north of $83,000 per year.
Fire Department’s wages:
Sac Fire Department
Sac Metro Fire Department
Oakland Fire Department
San Francisco Fire Department:
"That base pay for a beginning firefighter in Sacramento is usually around $70,000 to$75,000," Harvey said. "In the Bay, $120,000 to $130,000. Some serve affluent -- you can make $150,000 as a paramedic firefighters.”
Harvey figures for some people, it pays to commute.
"For some people, it does," he said. "For some people like myself, I was born and raised in Sacramento. I would never think of working any place else, but not everybody feels that way.”
The good news is the Fire Academy has about 40 new firefighters graduating on November 10 and 37 of them will be recruited by Sacramento Fire Department. Then in May, they will recruit another 25 to 30.
Some of the solutions Citygate Associates and the fire department proposed to City Council include the reopening and restaffing of Station 9, which has been closed for 15 years. They also recommend the department add more ambulances during peak hours and adopt a standard goal to achieve when it comes to response time. That goal, according to NFPA, should be 5 minutes, starting from the moment an emergency call is made.
Harvey did stress, however, such a standard would not equate to a penalty for the department if they fail to meet it.
“There’s a misconception that there’s a national standard, that there’s a rule, that NFPA says that you must have these," he said. "What they say is that this is a suggestion or a guideline and most agencies agree that that’s an acceptable guideline to try and strive to meet. And so the 5-minute response time is standard across the U.S. as an ideal goal.
"I want to applaud Sacramento Fire Department for [releasing its numbers] because many departments in cities and metro areas don't share its stats with the citizens," said NFPA director, Kenneth Willette. "Departments fear residents will get upset at the numbers they release regarding response times."
I asked Harvey what would be the consequence if the department adopts an official standard response time goal, and “The consequence is just that you can then point at it and say, 'hey we are not meeting our standard, that what we’ve agreed on is a standard, that we should be meeting.'"