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Subpar response times, staffing challenges greet new fire chief 

A splash of cold water

Colorado Springs Fire Chief Chris Riley is drinking from a fire hose, you might say.

The former Pueblo chief, sworn in Sept. 10, has inherited a department that's running as fast as it can, but can't keep up.

The department launched a pilot health clinic in April, will soon oversee a new emergency ambulance contract, opened another fire station in August and soon will open another one — without new firefighters to staff it.

Fire Station 22, to be built at 13075 Voyager Pkwy., is meant to boost response times up north. Fire crews there have fallen short of city standards for six years running.

It's not the only problem area, either. Springs Fire has consistently fallen short of first-company response times in four of the city's nine zones going back to 2006, according to Fire Department records. Structure-fire responses, which require more than one apparatus, also have been consistently substandard in three zones since 2008.

Sadly, two zones are two-time losers, having deficient responses in both categories. And both lie in the path of firefighters' greatest nemesis — wildfire. Zone 3 covers the northwest sector where the Waldo Canyon Fire destroyed 347 homes in 2012, and Zone 7 abuts the area charred by the Black Forest Fire that claimed nearly 500 homes this year.

Zone 3 will have to wait for help with response times until population warrants a new station, Riley says, but the department plans to open Station 22 in Zone 7, near the new Copper Ridge at Northgate development, in less than a year. And Riley says he can do it without adding staff and without hurting response times elsewhere.

Firefighters aren't buying it.

"Taking resources from another station would create a negative impact wherever those resources are lost," says International Association of Fire Fighters Local 5 president Jeremy Kroto.

Setting the goal

It's impossible to know if and when someone has died when they otherwise wouldn't have, or property was lost that could have been saved, if response times had been faster, Riley says in an email. But he adds that "minutes do count."

In 1999, City Council established the fire department's goal for first companies to reach a scene in eight minutes, 90 percent of the time. It set the structure-fire coverage standard, which includes two engines and a truck, at 12 minutes, 90 percent of the time. (See "Deploying forces," p. 25, for more detail.) Those standards were adopted based on "what is reasonable and realistic for our city," Riley says, and they're similar to industry best practices, including those of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

When you compute the figures based on all calls throughout the city, the department as a whole has met the standards citywide, or barely missed them, in most years. And it turns in fairly consistent on-time responses in the city's core (see "In the zones," p. 25).

But not so much elsewhere. It posts the worst times in Zone 9 — the city's eastern flank, which includes the busy Powers corridor from Constitution Avenue to Rangewood Drive — though they're expected to improve given the Aug. 26 opening of Station 21 at 7320 Dublin Blvd.

A similar goal is envisioned for Zone 7, which runs north from Austin Bluffs Parkway, and east from Interstate 25, to the city limits.

"The reason [Station] 22 is being built where it's at, up by the Bass Pro [Shops], is we have, right now, some response time concerns up there, because there's a long travel time to get up there," Riley says.

The solution hardly amounts to rocket science: Another station will help firefighters respond faster in such a spread-out area. "The closer we are to where the emergency calls are occurring, the faster we can arrive," Riley writes in an email.

Construction of the station itself will be funded by Copper Ridge developer Gary Erickson, but the city must outfit it with equipment and firefighters.

Though his budget will grow to $62.2 million next year from $58.5 million this year, Riley says he has no money for additional firefighters. According to budget documents, much of the increase will go toward firefighter raises and benefits.

The $250,000 in his capital fund is designated for equipping the new station with furniture, computers/telephones, tools and "everything else that goes into a building where our firefighters live and work for 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he says. So even though he's interested in a new apparatus, there's no money for that right now, either.

All that in mind, Riley may transfer crews and apparatus from Stations 10 and 19.

Station 10, at Academy and Meadowland boulevards, is the seventh-busiest in the city, handling about 4,400 calls last year, but its workload declined by 4 percent in the first three quarters of this year compared to the same period in 2012. Station 19, at 2490 Research Pkwy., is the 15th-busiest, but its workload dropped by 16 percent in 2013's first three quarters compared to 2012's.

One option Chief Riley won't explore: moving from four firefighters per apparatus to three. "That's not under consideration at all," he says. And overall, he pledges, "There's not going to be a negative impact on other areas."

Lots to handle

Local 5 supports building the new station, and can't yet determine what the exact impact would be on Stations 10 or 19 if either lost a company. But "as you can imagine," Kroto says, "we have concerns about staffing a new fire station with existing personnel."

Traditionally, to cover a four-person staff, the city would hire at least 12 firefighters. Local 5 has come up with other "options," but Kroto won't divulge what those are publicly. The organization hopes to share its ideas with the administration and analyze whatever proposal emerges, and Kroto is confident Riley will hear firefighters out.

"Chief Riley was professional and courteous enough to share with us, ahead of time, the proposal to staff Station 22 without hiring additional personnel," Kroto says. "In addition, Chief Riley pledged to provide us with a seat at the table regarding discussions about how that redeployment of resources would take place."

Of course, Station 22 isn't Riley's only assignment. The department's pilot health clinic, which employs two full-time firefighters, had enrolled 148 patients as of late November in efforts to curtail repeat 911 calls for non-urgent issues. That program might move from Fire Department headquarters to Chelton and Airport roads at some point, so Riley would have to coordinate that.

He also must find a way to fund 15 firefighters hired with a $2 million federal grant that runs out in 2015. (For now, Riley hopes he can simply renew the grant.) As for the emergency ambulance contract, the chief refuses to discuss it; what companies submitted bids and which one the city is negotiating with haven't been disclosed. But regardless, come April, he'll have another area of responsibility providing contract oversight and field supervision, for which the mayor has budgeted $300,000.

So Riley has a full plate. While he's visited with about 75 percent of the staff and hopes to complete rounds to all 21 stations by year's end, he's still low on the learning curve and knows it.

During an hour-long interview, he mentioned that he's new to the job seven times. He also misspoke, saying that Station 21 is the closest to Station 22's site, when Station 19 is actually the closest. He also identified Station 16 as being "far up north," when it's actually the city's most southern station, in the Broadmoor Bluffs area.

One might expect Riley's early days to be aided somewhat by former Fire Chief Rich Brown, who spent 32 years with the department and was in charge during the Waldo Canyon Fire last year. Especially considering Mayor Steve Bach kept Brown, who retired in April, on the payroll through the end of the year as a "consultant" at his regular salary of $147,657 a year plus benefits.

But asked about Brown, Riley says, "I've not had any conversations with him."

Read about your zone here.

  • A splash of cold water

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