Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part series, which started in Friday’s newspaper.
The Payson Fire Department is already deploying smaller crews than some of the surrounding areas that rely much more heavily on volunteer firefighters.
Moreover, the completing of a third fire station could have the unintended side effect of reducing the number of firefighters available for major fires.
The paradoxical effect of Payson’s decision to build a third fire station despite its ongoing budget woes emerged from interviews with fire chiefs from surrounding communities, who have long provided backup and support to Payson.
Ironically, the ripple effects of Payson’s effort to build and staff a third fire station could upend the budgets of the Hellsgate Fire Department, resulting in big reductions in their manpower as well.
Payson Fire Chief Marty deMasi predicts the third station will cut response times on medical calls without reducing overall resources for big fires — even if the town can’t afford more than two firefighters on the truck in the future.
The strategic and political complications of Payson’s effort to fulfill its promise to voters who approved a bond issue seven years ago emerged this week in the reaction to a national study demonstrating the hazards of two-man crews — one of Payson’s options in coping with a budget shortfall and staffing a third fire station now under construction on the border between Payson and Star Valley at 260 and Rim Parkway.
Payson had shrunk staffing from three to two firefighters as a result of a six-month budget squeeze involving furloughs and a freeze on overtime. The department went back to three-man crews in July.
Perhaps 95 percent of Payson Fire Department’s calls involve medical emergencies. In those cases, the town currently rolls a three-man fire truck, usually with two paramedics.
A private ambulance company also answers the call, staffed with two paramedics or emergency medical techs. The ambulance crew provides support and transports the patient to the hospital if necessary.
Payson relies mostly on full-time, professional firefighters — with some support from a small core of reserves – fully trained volunteers that get paid a hourly rate when they answer calls.
Other neighboring fire departments rely much more heavily on reserve firefighters.
The Houston Mesa Fire Department relies almost entirely on volunteers, said Chief Chuck Jacobs. Typically, the truck rolls out of the single fire station with two or three firefighters plus Jacobs, the only full-time paid firefighter in the department. Typically, one or two volunteers meet the truck at the scene of the emergency.
Jacobs said it costs the department more than $7,000 to train and equip a volunteer.
Jacobs — who worked for the Payson Fire Department for 26 years — said Houston Mesa struggles with the turnover rate among volunteers, but that the volunteers do a good job at less cost than a full timer.
“Should a full-time, career firefighter perform the job better? Yeah, he should. But that doesn’t mean a volunteer can’t do the job. I challenge you at a fire scene to tell the difference between who are volunteers and who aren’t.”
Hellsgate Fire Department also relies heavily on volunteers, said Chief Gary Hatch.
His department has three stations that answer about 475 calls annually — 130 of those in Payson as part of a $160,000 mutual aid contract with the town. The department has eight full-time and 32 reserve firefighters.
He said that two or three firefighters usually ride the truck to a fire, often with a fourth reserve firefighters on board as well. Several reserves meet the truck at the fire, after getting the call at home where they’re paid a minimal amount to remain on call.
Hellsgate’s large core of reserves generally allows it to put more firefighters on the scene initially than Payson, which generally runs three-man trucks.
Payson, on the other hand, relies mostly on its 21 firefighters to respond to calls, with some support from 11 reserve firefighters. Occasionally, a reserve firefighter provides a fourth man on the truck, but not often, said deMasi.
Hatch said relying on reserves cuts costs substantially.
Ironically, Hatch predicted if Payson eliminates the $160,000 automatic mutual aid agreement and instead hires 6-9 firefighters, it will actually result in a sharp drop in manpower on fires in the area covered by Payson’s new, third fire station.
He said that currently, Hellsgate generally calls out reserves and rolls one or two trucks when it gets a report of a house fire in Payson.
He said that Hellsgate had 26 firefighters on the scene within 30 minutes of a recent house fire in Chaparral Pines in Payson —although the house still burned to the ground because the fire burned for 30 minutes before Hellsgate got the call.
Once Payson cancels the $160,000 mutual aid payments and takes over calls in the border area with a truck from the third station, Hellsgate will have to figure out how to fund its current staffing level without having to lay off firefighters.
In that case, Hellsgate will likely send one 3-man engine to help out, rather than calling out the reserves.
As a result, far fewer firefighters will wind up on scene. National standards suggest that any major structure fire requires at least 15 firefighters to adequately control and contain.
The loss of the Payson’s automatic aid contract comes on top of a projected 16 percent decline in assessed value in the Hellsgate Fire District, which works out to a total budget loss of $320,000.
“That’s going to change our whole way of doing business,” said Hatch.
“Its scary: Where we send them 10 guys, we had a fire here recently and they sent two guys on a truck – that’s all they had. But that’s a little scary.”
However, deMasi said Hellsgate often arrives with two firefighters and a chief officer on the first truck, followed by the arrival of reserves dispatched from home. However, the firefighters on scene in the first four minutes make the biggest difference.
“I don’t know if it will work out that way or not,” he said of Hatch’s prediction that the number of firefighters on scene will decline sharply. “I have no control over what they do, but I don’t think that’s a realistic scenario.”
He said national standards suggest the system should get at least eight firefighters to a structure fire within eight minutes. However, none of the departments in Rim Country very often meets that standard.
“That’s a pretty darn hard standard to reach and we don’t make it very often. Only 30 percent of the time do we get 15 people to the scene in any time frame — much less 8 minutes.”
However, he said that once the town has three engine companies they can back one another up. Even a two-man engine from the new station would reach the scene several minutes quicker than before. The crew could then start work, knowing another two or three-man engine would arrive within minutes.
“What we’d probably do on a big call is just send everybody,” with backup coming from the neighboring fire departments in accord with the normal, unpaid, mutual aid agreements.
“You’ll never have enough resources to cover everything you’re called on to do. That’s why you have mutual aid agreements. But a department ought to have enough to take care of its routine needs,” he concluded.