By Jason Stone, INDEPENDENT NEWSMEDIA
On the same day the City of Surprise broke ground on a permanent home for one fire station, the head of the Fire Fighters Association in Surprise said another station is losing a critical component.
Work on Fire Station 304 began Sept. 9 in the city’s northern section.
But an engine at Station 305, 15517 N. Parkview Place, went out of service at the same time, while the city awaits word on an extension of a federal grant to help pay for the manpower to run it.
Mike Payne, who leads the Surprise chapter of the United Phoenix union, said it’s unacceptable for the city to go without an engine to pump water to ladder trucks in the busiest section of the city.
The city, meanwhile, said it has a good backup plan in order.
“Public Safety remains a top priority for the City of Surprise and our residents,” City Manager Mike Frazier and Fire Chief Tom Abbott wrote in answers to questions the Surprise Independent submitted last week.
The department was awarded a grant to fund five firefighters between March 2017 and this March as part of a “peak time” engine pilot program.
The money was enough to service the engine at “peak time” 40 hours a week. That’s not around the clock like Mr. Payne wants, but better than nothing, he said.
Since receiving the grant, the department absorbed the five firefighters into the general operation budget.
The latest re-application for the grant was submitted early this year, with a request to add eight firefighters to the department.
Until hearing either way, the department plans to replace the “peak time” engine at Station 305 with what’s called a Low Acuity Unit.
“The LA Unit at Fire Station 305 will be in service 24/7 and staffed with a sworn paramedic and sworn EMT,” Mr. Frazier and Mr. Abbott wrote.
The city said the trucks are equipped to respond to all sorts of medical calls, which make up three-fourths of the department’s requests.
Additionally, the city said the LA Unit is available to respond to other service calls, such as alarms and fire calls as additional manpower, to free up other Ladder and Engine companies to remain in service for emergencies.
But Mr. Payne said it’s not a good enough backup plan.
“The LA Unit is not going to fix it,” he said, referring to the LA as a “two-person pickup truck.” “It’s not going to put out fires.”
The city said Engine 305 can still be used “as staffing permits.”
Mr. Payne said waiting for the grant is not acceptable, either.
“They’re just winging it right now,” Mr. Payne said. “What we need is an actual concrete plan.”
Mr. Payne said the City Center is extra critical because it has the highest call volume in the city and will only get busier with the addition of Ottawa University Arizona dorm and the Texas Rangers housing facility nearing completion.
“You know who I think might like to know are the parents of the kids that are going to live in that dormitory right now,” Mr. Payne said. “They might like to know that there is no truck to put out the fire. They’ll have to wait for them to come from longer away.”
In response, Mr. Frazier and Mr. Abbott wrote: “The future downtown City Center development is an area closely monitored for coverage and service needs.”
Mr. Payne said the removal of the truck is extra critical for the city because he believes the city is slow with response times, even though the city provides statistics that say otherwise.
The difference comes when comparing “average” times with “90th percentile” times. The National Fire Protection Agency, which sets a nationwide standard, tracks times after throwing out the worst 10%.
Mr. Payne said the city is really more than a minute off the standard of 7:30 when using the 90th percentile times.
The city, however, said it tracks and publicly reports both average and 90th percentile response times.
“Benchmarking response times with other Valley fire departments is often done using average response times, as some departments report not having the ability to generate data for the 90th percentile,” Mr. Frazier and Mr. Abbott wrote. “Benchmark comparisons for 2018 with other West Valley cities reflected comparable emergency response times as those experienced by SFMD.”
Mr. Payne said the city is doing a disservice by not being clear on the times.
“There is no excuse for the city management on this,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘We don’t have a response time problem if you look at our average. Our average is fine.’
“But what organization makes the recommendations for best practices for fire departments: Is it Mike Frazier or the NFPA?”
Mr. Payne said he talked to four members of the City Council who told him they were “shocked” the engine was being taken out of service.
Statistics show about 1.5% of Surprise’s estimated 18,000 calls last year were for fires. Those 250 fires amount to one about every 37 hours.
During the spring budget hearings in front of the City Council, Mayor Skip Hall asked about the importance of new engines when fires make up a small percentage of the department’s calls.
“Could you imagine if he had said there were only 250 shootings last year and we don’t need more policemen?” Mr. Payne said.
“They’re cutting a unit out of service. Plain and simple.”