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CSFD fails to meet its response standards across the city

Timing is everything

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  • boyphare / Shutterstock.com

The Colorado Springs Fire Department's response times have eroded across the city, and it's unclear if simply adding eight firefighters, as planned under the city's 2019 budget, will change that.

The fire department examines response times in nine "planning zones," or regions of the city. Through October 2018, the most recent data available, the department fell short of its own response time goals, which are more lax than the national standard, in eight of nine zones, records show.

Those goals:

• Have a first company on scene within eight minutes 90 percent of the time for all calls, including medical, fire, hazardous materials and high-angle rescues (e.g., from Garden of the Gods' rocks or out of a deep ditch).

• Have a full call-out — at least two engines and one truck — arrive within 12 minutes for structure fires and other major calls.

Firefighters met the standard of "8-minute responses 90 percent of the time" in only one of nine zones in 2018. About a decade ago, in 2007, which was before recession-era cutbacks, the department was compliant with the standard in five zones.

Firefighters did better on the 12-minute goal, meeting it in six of nine zones in 2018, and matching its 2007 performance.

The lag comes as firefighters plan to seek voter approval of collective bargaining authority in the April 2 city election. They've petitioned the question onto the ballot, but even if the measure passes, firefighters would be barred from striking.

Mayor John Suthers, who opposes the measure, says in a statement that he is trying to address the problem, and plans to add 32 firefighters over the next four years. But Suthers also downplays the issue, saying fire department response times have fallen "less than 1% in the past year."

"As Colorado Springs grows," he adds, "the CSFD will be continually challenged to maintain response standards which were established in 1999. CSFD will continue to work to provide the citizens of Colorado Springs with the best emergency response possible given our topography, geography, increasing size and population."

But Dave Noblitt, president of the firefighters' union, International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 5, notes there are fewer firefighters today than in 2007, though the city's population has grown by at least 17 percent since then and the CSFD's budget has risen by some 42 percent, to $74 million in 2019.

The national staffing average is 1.26 firefighters per 1,000 residents, he says, and the CSFD's 443 compute to only .9 firefighter per 1,000 residents. By the national standard, the city should have 600.

The sprawling city also covers roughly 200 square miles — a larger area than, say, Denver (155 square miles) or San Francisco (47 square miles).

"This is why we are so passionate about firefighters having a seat at the table," Noblitt says. "We want to ensure that as the city grows, the residents can count on excellent service that comes from adequate staffing, highly qualified firefighters, and the proper equipment and vehicles necessary to perform the job."

Data show firefighters achieved the 8-minute mark goal in only one zone in 2018: downtown (Planning Zone 1).

The northwest zone had the slowest responses — a first company arrived on scene within 8 minutes only 79 percent of the time. The zone that wraps around the downtown area's north and east side saw the second best response times — first companies arrived within 8 minutes 89 percent of the time. All zones saw slower responses this year than in 2017.

The west side (Planning Zone 2) had the steepest decline in compliance with the 8-minute standard in the past 11 years. There, first companies made it to scenes within 8 minutes 92 percent of the time in 2007. In 2017, it was 86 percent, and this year, 83.5 percent of the time.

Firefighters fell short of the 12-minute goal in west side, northwest and far east zones. And response times for a full call-out were slower in six of nine districts compared with 2017.

CSFD spokesperson Capt. Brian Vaughan says a variety of factors are at play, such as lengthy deployments that tie up firefighters and spread resources thin across the city.

For example, he says, a high-angle rescue on the city's west or southwest side can span eight to 12 hours, leaving other firefighters to backfill those stations' territories.

If Station 13 at 1475 Cresta Road, for example, is occupied with an hours-long deployment, Station 4 at 2280 Southgate Road would cover Station 13's area, meaning Station 4 would face longer travel times to some calls.

MAP AND DATA COURTESY CSFD
  • Map and data courtesy CSFD

Weather also can impact responses, Vaughan says. Multiple companies were tied up in response to a severe hail storm this summer that battered the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and injured at least a dozen people there.

Another factor: Firefighters don't always push a status button in the cab of an apparatus — marking their arrival time. That means they must reconstruct the timeline later.

Demand, too, can contribute to slower times.

In 2007, the department ran about 45,000 calls, and in 2017, the most recent full year, 68,260.

As more open spaces become developed, new homes and businesses add to firefighters' work load. Take the 18,500-acre Banning Lewis Ranch on the city's east flank. Not much happened after its 1988 annexation, but after City Council amended the annexation agreement last spring to encourage construction, firefighters can expect to be busier there. The new agreement charges fees to be used toward building an unspecified number of fire stations, whereas the original agreement required developers to provide land and build and equip five fire stations.

While new stations are built — Station 21 opened in August 2013 at 7320 Dublin Blvd. on the northeast side, and Station 22 opened in mid-2016 on the far north side at 711 Copper Center Parkway — they aren't always enough to offset increased demand.

That's unlikely to change soon. A city Auditor's Office analysis concluded that development fees "do not cover the full cost of land acquisition, construction, and initial outfitting of the required police and fire stations."

Vaughan says decisions about adding fire stations are based on several factors, chief among them "alarm load" in a given area.

The CSFD's inability to meet its own response standards is particularly troublesome considering the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) — a nonprofit that promotes codes, standards, research, training, education and advocacy for firefighters — calls for stricter standards.

"Travel time to a fire suppression incident, by the initial arriving company, should be 4 minutes or less," according to the NFPA code, which also says "all units must arrive within 8 minutes travel time."

Materials in modern houses, including plastics and other substances, burn hotter and quicker than ever before, Noblitt says. "A quick response time is essential for the safety of our residents and our firefighters," he says.

He also notes an IAFF study of CSFD found the department can't meet the national standard anywhere in the city more than half the time due to a variety of factors, notably staffing.

"We want to ensure that as the city grows, the Fire Department grows proportionately," Noblitt says. "We believe that every tax-paying resident should have equal opportunity to receive a timely response from the Fire Department regardless of where they live."

Editor's Note: A quote about call volume growth from CSFD spokesperson Capt. Brian Vaughan has been removed because it was inaccurate.

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