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Less means more with 2-man engine plan
Mayor favors rethinking Manteca fire service delivery
FIRE2-05-25-08
Manteca firefighter Ryan Avant, left, and engineer Mike Hohn go through the weekly inspection of the Jaws of Life equipment from engine No. 242 at the Powers Avenue station. - photo by Bulletin file photo

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How do you expand services while dealing with declining revenues?

Mayor Willie Weatherford believes it requires rethinking how you  deliver services as a city especially when personnel costs are the biggest chunk of a budget.

The Manteca Police Department, as an example, spends 91 percent of its $15.9 million budget on manpower including both wages and benefits. It is the highest of all municipal operations in terms of personnel costs within department budgets.

One challenge is fire protection. Even with Measure M in place, the city is going to have a problem being able to provide manpower to meet the goal of having firefighters respond to developed locations with the city within five minutes of an emergency call involving fires or a medical emergency.

“Equipment is cheap compared to manpower,” Weatherford said.

That’s why the mayor would like to see Manteca go back to two man fire engines without deviating from the highly recommended standards that three firefighters are on scene to go into a fire.

How that would work is actually fairly simple.

Most of the calls Manteca Fire Department handles are medical emergencies. They rolled on 4,589 calls in 2007 of which 64.6 percent or 2,963 were medical emergencies. Fires accounted for 5.9 percent or 269 calls while other emergencies came to 764 calls and service calls came in at 593.

Weatherford believes a plan that rolls a two-man fire engine to a medical call would give the city the flexibility to add much needed fire stations in both the northwest and southwest portions of Manteca without busting the budget.

The mayor noted if there were a fire call, you’d roll two of the closest engines as the primary responders with back up as is now done from another station.

Based on 2007 calls, there is 11 times the number of medical emergencies.

“They don’t go right into a burning building when they arrive at a scene,” Weatherford said.

He noted you don’t need three firefighters to assess a situation, but you need three to enter under adopted federal standards. Weatherford believes that can be accomplished with simply running more engines with two firefighters apiece to the scene of a fire.

Meanwhile, two firefighters can handle medical emergencies.

There are nine front-line firefighters currently on duty at any given time in Manteca manning three stations. Eight firefighters could staff four stations. By adding a 10th firefighter they could staff five fire stations compared to the three they have today.

Such a strategy would address the fact there are currently 1,100 homes outside the five-minute response time in southeast Manteca. There are also more than 4,000 new homes planned in the next 10 to 15 years plus over 1,200 acres of retail, office and industrial uses in the 1,050-acre Austin Road Business Park planned immediately to the south of the fire station site.

The five-minute response time is a mantra for those who make a living putting out fires and responding to heart attacks.

Having firefighters and equipment on the scene of a fire or medical emergency within five minutes is essential for two reasons:

• The chance of surviving a heart attack or major trauma starts dropping off rapidly after five minutes.

• “Flash over” when fires literally erupt occur within five minutes of the first visible flame.

It sounds like a lot of time, but it really isn’t. A call being placed, equipment dispatching and the engine actually rolling out of a fire station consume the first two and a half minutes.
That leaves 180 seconds for firefighters to reach a structure fire or a major medical emergency.

The mayor said they need to revisit policies that roll fire engines with firefighters to medical emergencies at doctors offices, especially complexes such as Kaiser where there are trained doctors and nurses on site.

The city for years has rolled on such calls because of “insurance concern” of  the clinics and doctors. Weatherford noted when there are trained medical personnel — who ultimately would handle lifesaving procedures after they are handed off patients from ambulance crews?

The city during the fiscal year starting July 1 will face a projected $11.3 million deficit if spending and revenue trends noted in December continue. City Manager Steve Pinkerton noted moves already made and strategies being looked at by the city could bridge at least half of that gap.