The city’s fire department is short on staff and may get the help it needs.
The City and Borough of Juneau Committee of the Whole moved forward a motion via a 6-1 vote, with Mayor Ken Koelsch casting the lone dissenting vote, to draft an ordinance that could detail adding anywhere between four to six staff members on the Capital City and Fire Rescue crew during its meeting Wednesday at Assembly Chambers. CCFR Fire Chief Rich Etheridge said this is the first step in the right direction.
“We really appreciate the support of the Assembly,” Etheridge said after the meeting Wednesday. “We do need staffing. Obviously, the more staffing for the department, the better.”
The result of this approval followed a presentation given by Etheridge and Fitch and Associates members, partner Steve Knight and senior consultant BJ Jungmann. Fitch and Associates are a public safety consulting firm and were brought in to conduct a staffing and operations audit on CCFR.
The group made six recommendations during the discussion but said they believe addressing staffing needs was key to getting going on the right first step. Etheridge said making this initial motion to move the addition forward will help the department if it is eventually approved by the CBJ Assembly. In the presentation, the number of calls from 2010 to 2017 increase from 3,486 to 5,077. The majority of those calls, nearly 76 percent, are for emergency medical services, while 18 percent are for fire-related incidents.
Etheridge said adding staff will help alleviate the workload for current staff members.
“The number of calls is increasing and the number of calls happening at the same time is increasing,” Etheridge said. “We have run out of resources regularly and we have to rely on the police department.”
Assembly member Beth Weldon, who proposed an amendment that would add an additional six 24/7 staff members, said the decision made Wednesday is a just a minor move forward.
“I think there is no doubt that the fire department needs more personnel,” Weldon said. “This is a baby step. I wanted six 24/7, but the way miss (Maria) Gladziszewski modified her motion we will be looking at four 12-hours and two 24/7. Hopefully, we will be able to sway the rest with getting six 24/7 personnel to give these guys some relief.”
Deputy City Manager Mila Cosgrove said in an interview Wednesday that the city spent about $50,000 to commission the study, which was taken from the city’s budget for CCFR. She said the city signed the contract with Fitch and Associates on Oct. 31, 2017. According to the city budget on the CBJ website, CCFR’s total budget for the year was $8,468,900.
At a meeting earlier in the day between the representatives from Fitch and Associates and CCFR chiefs and employees, CCFR employees expressed hope for more 24-hour staff members instead of 12-hour staff members. In an interview after that meeting, Etheridge said he was a little surprised at the recommendation for 12-hour staff members.
“Their goal is to do the most good with the least cost tied to it,” Etheridge said, “whereas our focus is, we have to consider cost but we want to be able to do the most good.”
He, Assistant Chief Chad Cameron and IAFF 4303 President Travis Wolfe all said the Fitch and Associates recommendations are more of a starting point than a final solution. Cameron said he wants the department to be able to take some time to look over the recommendations and adapt them to work best in Juneau.
Cameron said the recommendations have merit, but when an outside firm tries to apply industry standards to Juneau, it’s tough to do that because CCFR is quite different from most.
“That’s one of the challenges here in Juneau,” Cameron said. “There’s not a lot to compare to. There aren’t a lot of departments who are similar to us. Most other departments, when you talk to fire departments, they can call for help, where we can’t. We do everything because we’re the only game in town.”
Koelsch explained why he voted against the motion.
“I don’t know exactly what we are getting as far as personnel, that was not specified,” Koelsch said. “Are we getting EMTs, firefighters, a combination of both? We just got the information tonight and discussed it tonight. We normally go through the Finance Committee. We have a lot of other things that we could be adding to it. I have no problem supporting between four and nine (additional staff members) if that is what they tell us that is what they need. But, I do have a problem in getting things pushed a little too quickly.”
City Manager Rorie Watt explained moving forward with the motion will give city staff time to introduce an ordinance with more information for the July 23 regular Assembly meeting. The goal is to have a public hearing set for Aug. 13. Watt added that making the approval for the ordinance to be drafted also gives the fire department more time to recruit.
Cosgrove did not have exact numbers available on how much six additional staff members would cost but estimated it could be between $400-500 thousand.
During the daytime meeting with fire department members, firefighters and chiefs asked questions for about an hour and a half to Knight and Jungmann about how they did their study and why they made the recommendations they made. One of the recommendations that resulted in questioning was one to add a new shift commander.
This commander, Knight and Jungmann said, would be both a field commander and a paramedic. Cameron, in particular, was critical of the suggestion because overseeing a scene and tending to urgent medical needs are two vastly different roles, he said. He asked Knight and Jungmann to name another department that has positions like that, and they weren’t able to do so.
The department certainly needs help with handling its call volume, Cameron said, and he said he wasn’t sure if making all of these recommended changes are the right path forward.
“I’m completely for looking at the department and making changes, absolutely,” Cameron said, “but we’ve got to make sure it works and we’re not passing a problem on to another day. We need to solve the problem.”
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