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Cape fire suspendeds brown-outs

By Staff | May 12, 2011

Citing increases in calls for service, the Cape Coral Fire Department has suspended the practice of unit brown-outs effective immediately.
As of Thursday, no units will be placed on brown-out status until further notice. The fire department began using brown-outs two years ago as a way to reduce the overtime costs associated with staffing all available units.
According to officials, the CCFD has been monitoring peak time incidents and simultaneous calls for service to track any trends associated with the practice. Call volume and response times were tracked throughout the year.
“Continuing increases in the number of calls for service and the simultaneous nature of some of the calls necessitated revisiting the brown-out policy,” Connie Barron, spokeswoman for the fire department, said.
Since March, one unit per duty day has been kept out-of-service. Prior to that, there were three fire units per day that were browned-out.
Thursday’s decision keeps all units in service.
“I think they’re making the absolute right decision,” Brendan Fonock, vice president of the Cape Coral Professional Firefighters Local 2424, said.
The union has been against brown-outs since their inception 18 months ago.
“We’ve never agreed with it,” Fonock said.
“Brown-outs are not a safe practice,” he said. “They put the citizens and the firefighters at risk.”
On Monday night, Fonock spoke before the city council and pointed out a weekend incident where a call came in and a fire station farther away had to respond because the closest station was out one truck due to a brown-out.
A call came in Saturday to Fire Station 6 on Chiquita Boulevard about a cardiac arrest drowning. Two units are assigned and staffed at the station, but the station was browned-out and the only working unit was on a call.
“A unit had to respond from Station 9, which is on Pelican (Boulevard),” Fonock said, adding that that is roughly a three-mile difference.
“It caused a delay because of the brown-out,” he said.
When the CCFD decided to cut the number of brown-outs in March, it was because of another significant call where response was delayed, Fonock said.
“These things affect us all the time,” he said. “These were just significant.”
According to Fonock, the CCFD’s goal is to get to 90 percent of its calls within five minutes, which is the national standard. In the latest study by the Cape, it was hitting that five-minute mark about 40 percent of the time.
The response time to Saturday’s call was reportedly nine minutes.
“Even with discontinuing the unit brown-out practice, we still may experience situations where we are unable to respond to emergency calls in a timely manner,” Fire Chief Bill Van Helden wrote in a prepared statement Thursday.
“Further reductions in response times will be dependent on our long-term strategy to build additional fire stations and place staff in key locations throughout the city,” he continued.
Councilmember Pete Brandt was surprised by the change Thursday.
“I thought we were doing it to keep overtime down,” he said.
Brandt noted that there is always one unit operational at every Cape fire station, and that he heard that the brown-out Saturday only increased the response time by about 40 seconds.
“So it’s kind of ridiculous,” Brandt said. “It was overblown, I think, quite dramatically.”
He added that without the brown-outs, overtime could increase.
“I think it’s something we’re going to have to review again,” Brandt said. “I’ll have to see what all of the ramifications are.”
Fonock said the union’s vocal stance against brown-outs has nothing to do with pay or benefits, but a need to bring the use of unsafe practices to light.
“I believe this is certainly a victory for the citizens,” he said Thursday.