More calls, fewer resources: Cape fire and rescue strives to maintain service levels
Despite a decline in the city’s population, the Cape Coral Fire Department continued to battle an ever-increasing number of calls for service last year.
The department responded to 18,274 calls in 2010, according to statistics provided by the city. That is a 3.6 percent increase over the 17,641 calls for service that Cape fire and rescue workers responded to the year before, and a 6.6 percent hike from 2009, when the agency responded to 17,139 calls.
For at least eight years, calls for service have been on a steady incline. In 2002, the city recorded its only decrease since 1999, according to records. There were 10,997 calls, a 1.5 percent drop from 11,167 the year before.
“We’re getting busier, and we’re not stopping,” Division Chief of Operations Tom Tomich said.
Yet, over the last three years, the city’s population has been dwindling.
The U.S. Census Bureau reported that there were 154,305 people living in Cape Coral in 2010. That is a 5.2 percent decrease from the year before and a 6.9 percent drop from 2008, according to information previously released.
There were 162,852 Cape residents in 2009 and 165,774 the prior year. Population peaked in 2007, when there were 172,318 living within the city.
According to Tomich, people are more likely to call for help in hard times.
“They become more reliant on what services are available to them,” he said.
There also has been an uptick in calls tied to utility service disconnections. For example, a person uses candles for light in a home without electricity and one ignites a fire, or electrical shortages or carbon monoxide poisoning takes place because residents are using a generator improperly.
Tomich said the department has seen a half-dozen instances in the Cape.
Varied services provided
Of the total calls recorded in 2010, 80.74 percent came in as rescue calls. Rescue calls have a “medical component” and can range from automobile and boat accidents to regular medical calls, he said. Service and good intent calls made up the second largest chunk at 10.17 percent.
These calls for service can include responding to fire alarm activations and lightning strikes, as well as helping elderly individuals who have perhaps fallen out of bed at home and require help. Calls involving actual structure fires or automobile fires only accounted for 2.12 percent of the total call volume.
The remainder of the calls consisted of hazardous conditions calls and false calls — 2.16 percent and 4.81 percent, respectively. Tomich said hazardous calls can involve a chemical spill or propane leak, while false calls for service are incidents that come in as a crashes or fires but turn out not to be that.
According to Tomich, the department has noted upswings and downswings in the percentage splits over the years, but all calls for service are on the rise. For example, during the first few months of last year, the agency responded to an unusual number of house fire calls.
“Those turned out to be fires of a suspicious nature,” he said.
“Some fluctuations,” Tomich added, “but the overall trend is upward.”
Yet, staffing levels at the department have remained static.
Cape fire and rescue currently employs 192 people, according to Tomich. Last year, the department decided not to fill positions because of the down economy and a push by city officials to tighten budgets across the board.
Twenty-six positions remain unfilled.
“We didn’t want to hire people that we would have to consider having to lay off,” he said.
Seven positions were vacated due to retirements or people accepting jobs elsewhere this year, Tomich said. Fire Chief Bill Van Helden decided to fill five of the positions after holding off as long as he could into the year.
“We’re been playing it very conservatively as far as our staffing goes,” he said. “The calls are continuing to increase, and we have only added five.”
The National Fire Protection Association has determined that the first responding team to arrive at an incident should do so within a travel time of four minutes, with an additional minute for getting ready and out the door.
Based on a response time of five minutes or less, Cape fire and rescue has been hitting the mark about between 42 percent and 45 percent of the time since 2004. Prior to that, the department responded to about 57 percent of the calls within five minutes. In 2000, the agency hit 61 percent — its best.
According to information provided by the city, the National Fire Protection Association’s standard is 90 percent of calls within five minute or less.
“It is a concern,” Tomich said. “It would be nice if the Cape could be at that 90th percentile.”
In 2000, the city decided that 90 percent would be too difficult to attain. It set its own goal of responding to 60 percent of incidents within five minutes or less, according to Tomich. The city only reached that goal the first year.
Last year, the department’s average response time was five minutes and 47 seconds. Over the past decade, that has fluctuated between six minutes and three seconds in 2009 to five minutes, seven seconds in 2000.
From 2003-09, the time was five minutes and 40-something seconds.
The North Fort Myers Fire District responded to 8,389 calls for service in 2010, with an average response time of between five and six minutes. Iona-McGregor responded to 8,658 calls, with a standard of four to six minutes.
“We’ve been able to maintain the response times that we’ve been currently shooting for,” Tomich said, adding that that could change as calls increase.
“It may make it a little more difficult to do that,” he said.
Solutions to obstacles
As calls for service continue to rise, resources will play a role.
In 2000, the city had seven fire stations to serve a population of 102,286. Over the past decade, the city has built an additional three stations, with a master plan including 20 fire stations once the Cape in completely built out.
With officials holding the line on filling vacant positions, Tomich explained that the department has had to come up, and will continue to come up with, ways to stretch the personnel, facilities and equipment that are available.
“Brown-outs” have become one answer.
Looking at the city’s peak times for call volume, including time of day and day of week, the department has picked out the lulls and selected one or two units to shut down during those times. Tomich said brown-outs also address the issue of cutting overtime hours.
“We have to keep our overtime numbers as low as possible, but protect the public,” he said. “Our goal is to not have service levels degrade as a result of having fewer people.”
Cape fire and rescue was budgeted $1.119 million in 2009 for overtime pay. In 2010, the department was budgeted approximately $781,000, but officials kept that figure at about $213,000. This year it has been allotted $314,936.
“So we’re employing this practice of brown-outs to keep the overtime numbers down,” Tomich said.
But, the solution comes with a drawback.
Recently, the fire department faced three residential fires in a row.
Tomich said the response “completely overwhelmed” the agency. North Fort Myers was asked to come in and staff one Cape station, while Iona-McGregor provided personnel for another Cape station to respond to any medical calls.
“This is an economic condition that’s being felt by everybody, and we’re going to get through it,” Tomich said. “We’re going to get over it, but in the meantime, everybody’s pitching in.”