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Is $1M justified for staffing an aerial fire truck?

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POSTED May 13, 2009 1:26 a.m.
Does Manteca really need nine firefighters to man the 100-foot aerial platform fire truck 24/7?

It is housed at the Union Road station with another fire engine. Some cities have switched to a policy where there is a standard front-line engine and a ladder truck so that when a call comes in, a decision can be made which engine is needed. That way only three men per shift are needed, slashing manpower costs.

How critical is having a $1 million in extra manpower? In 2007, Manteca responded to just 64 structure fires out of 4,589 calls. There were 4,820 calls in 2008 but the annual report after years of breaking out structure fires simply lumps them into other fires noting there were 270. That compares to 269 overall.

An oversight or not, it conveniently clouds a critical public safety debate that should be framed around how much can we really afford to spend on fire services and are we spending it effectively.

There is a structure fire every 5.2 days in Manteca. In most cases, the aerial platform truck helps as there are often two-story residential fires where cars parked on streets make quick access tricky.

It should be noted Manteca rolls multiple engines to structure fires so the crew at the Union Road station in all likelihood would be dispatched regardless. What if a fire were to occur near the station when the crew was out with the aerial truck elsewhere at a fire? The same thing that happens now.  Either that engine or another one would have to roll to it. Actually, the only way you could be viewed as a disadvantage is the fact there is only one platform fire truck. It would be fiscally irresponsibility to propose having two aerial platform fire trucks “just in case.”

In a way, that is what the current staffing is based on “just in case.”

The argument for the platform truck can be made. What can’t be made is a separate crew in today’s fiscally tight times and in the future.

Manteca’s priorities when we come out of the slump should be the placement of rescue units at all three fire stations staffed 24/7. Currently that would require the same amount of manpower as one platform truck.

The reason this makes more sense is the fact there were 3,120 medical emergencies in 2008, up from 2,963 in 2007. The number of medical calls has been steadily climbing since 1986 while structure fire calls have been dropping.

Yet we find it more important to man a platform truck 24/7 instead of putting rescue units at every station.

If there are more budget cuts coming, they have to come out of the fire and parks departments as every other department has already been whacked back. Police are down 14 positions yet the fire service staffing essentially remains intact. Credit that to language in their contract they managed to convince elected leaders a few years back to incorporate about minimum staffing. That has come back to haunt the city.

Yet all is not lost. Should the city’s financial situation worsen and slide toward red ink, the city can declare a fiscal emergency. If it is supported courts tend to back up cities when they are forced to suspend provisions of contracts to stay afloat.

No one is knocking firefighters, their dedication, or their value. The discussion – and ultimate course of action – has to be based on reality and not ideal models.

Ideal models would have a heck of a lot more cops on the streets of Manteca. Law enforcement leaders and officers have found a way to make it work. Now is the time for the fire department to do the same.

The budget crisis is a good thing.

If that sounds insane consider this: Some of the possible cost savings for fire operations could actually end up with more effective and better coverage once we pull out of the downturn.
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