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City Council subcommittee dissects Phoenix Fire Department operations, response times

Phoenix Fire Department delivers latest recruitment, revenue and response data
By Terrance Thornton | Digital Free Press

The Phoenix Fire Department continues to tackle the complex challenge of delivering emergency fire and medical services within response times defined by both local and national standards.

While the city of Phoenix — and greater Maricopa County region — continue to enjoy myriad benefits of the historic population boom of recent years, Fire Department officials delivered Wednesday, Nov. 1, its regular update to the Phoenix City Council subcommittee on Public Safety and Justice a dissection of department operations.

Ranging from recruitment levels and fire-and-rescue response times to developments in telehealth, Phoenix Fire Department leaders delivered details at every level of the organization this past Wednesday.

“Over the last year, we have been working on different areas on how to improve our staffing as well as mitigating strategies around our increasing call volume we are seeing today,” Phoenix Fire Chief Michael Duran told subcommittee members at the onset of the presentation.

Executive Assistant Fire Chief Scott Walker led the presentation providing an overview or recruitment successes.

“The fire department benefits from a strong desire of individuals wanting to become firefighters,” Assistant Chief Walker said. “The department’s approach to recruitment has always been a collaborative effort, which includes using our different affinity groups, our labor management process and our internal recruitment staff.”

In July, the number of sworn positions increased to 1,798 to improve staffing levels and prepare for future fire station growth, fire department officials reported to City Council. With recent recruitment efforts, PFD has filled 1,786 positions, which Assistant Chief Walker pointed out is 12 positions short of 100% staffed.

“While interest remains good, our fire department service is not immune to the challenges being felt across other sectors,” he said. “While we see fluctuations to recruitment over the last decade or so interest has and remains high. As you see in this last recruitment a total of 1,271 people applied to become Phoenix firefighters.”

Assistant Chief Walker explains meeting the threshold of 100% staffing levels can be impact by different natural fluctuations.

“The department hiring goal is to truly strive to be 100% staffed for our authorized, full-time positions to be filled. Obviously because of attrition and our academy timing, we don’t always hit our goal,” he said. “Being fully staffed ensures that all emergency response apparatus are in service and the need for the use of overtime — both voluntary or forced — is minimized.”

To help deal with those fluctuations in staffing levels, Assistant Chief Walker explains, the department has now implemented a two-year employee forecast for those leaving through and those coming into the ranks.

“Our plan is working,” he said. “We know this is the right approach to fill our vacancies. We appreciate the role female firefighters play … obviously we are at 95% male and 5% female looking at the chart. We know this is certainly a lot of opportunity here.”

Read the report for yourself HERE.

Phoenix Fire emergency response times reported

Assistant Chief Walker explains emergency response times are meticulously monitored by the Phoenix Fire Department.

“Because seconds count when responding to many emergencies it is imperative that the firefighters arrive as soon as possible to allow for the greatest positive impact,” he said. “Currently the [Phoenix Fire Department] response times do exceed the [National Fire Protection Association] standards. A response time is when we dispatch a fire apparatus and when it arrives on scene.”

Numbers show this past September — across the entire municipality of Phoenix — the response times for engines, ladders and ambulance rescues was 9 minutes.

From a national and Phoenix Fire standard perspective, according to Assistant Chief Walker the goals are:

  • For a fire emergency call out the NFPA standard is 5 minutes and 20 seconds.
  • For a ambulance rescue call out the NFPA standard is 5 minutes.

“The first arriving unit at an EMS incident needs to arrive within 5 minutes — that is the standard that we have set forth,” Assistant Chief Walker said. “We know time counts and we know seconds count — these numbers from the engines and ladders are down from the last time we reported, it’s seconds, but it is improvement.”

Assistant Chief Walker described the complex system at work when a call for service hits any of the Phoenix Fire Department locations across the Valley of the Sun.

“Rescue responses are extremely high and the response times have increased just because of the sheer capacity of the system,” he explained prior to a line of questioning regarding the composition of fire truck and ambulance crews from subcommittee member, District 2 Councilman Jim Waring.

“As I remind everybody, we are an all-hazard fire model, where a fire truck does go as an initial response to all calls but you are correct about 88% of all calls are EMS related. But they go out initially, that way they can assess; and that is a four-person crew with two paramedics to initiate care and the ambulance comes as the transport piece.”

Assistant Chief Walker explains as hundreds move to the Phoenix region almost daily, Census figures show, emergency services are growing with it.

“We do live in a rapidly growing city, explosion of population, increased traffic congestion — all of these are contributing factors. Just the sheer number of rescues, we are outpacing our capacity.”

Numbers show the Phoenix Fire Department projects ambulance rescues are anticipated to increase.

  • In 2021 the number of patient transports was 74,687.
  • In 2022 the number of patient transports was 83,472.
  • In 2024 the number of patient transports is expected be 101,400.

“This is a significant increase about 22% or about 18,00 more transports projected,” Assistant Chief Walker said. “The Phoenix Fire Department has provided its own patient transportation system for almost four decades. The system ensures that residents receive the highest level of care from when they call 911 to when they are delivered to the hospital.”

Also, Assistant Chief Walker points out the municipal ambulance program is a revenue generator for the city.

“This is a revenue generator program for the city — it is not an enterprise fund,” he said. “In 2021, we generated about $33 million in revenue. In 2022, we generated $46 million and 2024 we are projected to generate about $80 million in revenue for the city of Phoenix.”

Assistant Fire Chief Walker says the department transports about 50% to 55% of the patients it encounters to local hospitals.

A view of Phoenix City Hall, 200 W. Washington St. in downtown Phoenix. (File Photos/DigitalFreePress)
City Council subcommittee feedback and follow-ups

Subcommittee Chairwoman Ann O’Brien, District 1 councilwoman, asked plainly about meeting both national and fire department standards regarding response times.

“Whether it’s our rescues, or our engines in responding to any of these calls, we are struggling to meet those standards, is that correct?” she asked of Assistant Fire Chief Walker.

“Madam chair, that would be correct,” he replied.

For Councilman Waring, he asks about existing standards and how they are impacting the day-to-day services for emergency medical care.

“If 80% of your book of business is basically transporting people to the hospital —- and I understand there are paramedics on the trucks —- I am not sure you need two people driving the ambulances. Only one of them can drive,” he said. “If this were a debate and if the public came and heard what you just laid out, I don’t think it would carry the day.”

Fire Chief Duran explains staffing requirements are based on NFPA standards.

“What we fall back on is our staffing requirements, for the engine, that is a four person unit,” he explained. “An ambulance is a two-person unit. One paramedic cannot be the only driver during a Code 3. It really is the most ideal model for us going forward. We are regulated by the Arizona Department Health Services and what we regularly look at are ambulance response times.”

In coming weeks, the Phoenix Fire Department is anticipated, at the subcommittee level, to deliver broken down metrics regarding ambulance response times at an upcoming public meeting.

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