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Wash. city fights for more medics, firefighters

Response times are growing, and the system is starting to crumble, the battalion chief told the city council

By Kristi Pihl
Tri-City Herald

KENNEWICK, Wash. — Kennewick officials said more fire stations and responders are needed to improve the travel time for firefighters and paramedics to get to fires and medical emergencies.

Battalion Chief Tod Kreutz told the Kennewick City Council on Tuesday that it's likely response times will continue to grow. The city is running with four fire stations when six really are needed.

"The system is starting to crumble," Kreutz said.

For 90 percent of the time, the fire department's travel time for the first units to reach fires is 4 minutes, 52 seconds and medical emergencies is 5 minutes, 33 seconds, he said. The city's travel time goal for 90 percent of cases is 4 minutes for medical emergency and 5 minutes for fires.

Kennewick Mayor Pro tem Don Britain said it's obvious more firefighters and paramedics and more stations are needed.

Fire Chief Neil Hines said his goal is to present a staffing plan along with proposed funding this year so it can be considered while planning the 2015-16 budget.

That planning begins with a council retreat May 9, when the city council will prioritize goals, said City Manager Marie Mosley. Work on the budget will continue during the summer and fall.

The ratio of Kennewick firefighters to the city's population has declined during the last decade, dropping well below the national average of 1.32 firefighters per 1,000 city residents. It's now just below 1 firefighter per 1,000.

The city's staffing has stayed at no more than 75 firefighters for more than a decade, Hines said. The city also has not added to its four fire stations since 1994.

At the same time, calls for help have increased, on an average of 3 to 4 percent each year, Kreutz said. Last year, the department had nearly 8,150 calls for service.

Still, the department has improved turnout times for three years in a row, said Marvin Leonard, deputy fire chief. But there are only so many seconds that can be shaved off without adding more people and adopting better technology.

Five new firefighters would get the city to 1.07 firefighters per 1,000 residents. It would take 24 new firefighters to meet the national average.

Going to digital dispatching also would save time, Kreutz said. There is up to a 25-second lag time with dispatch.

"It doesn't sound like much, but our goal is 60 seconds to get out the door," Kreutz said.

Mutual aid helps but it doesn't reduce response times, said Fire Marshal Mark Yaden. And adding minutes when responding to cardiac arrests or fires decreases the chance of a positive outcome.

The city also is having difficulty getting enough paramedics, which requires more training than emergency medical technicians, or EMTs, officials said.

Hines said he wants to increase the number of paramedics this year, because many of the department's paramedics are senior members who are lost at a higher rate to retirement and burnout. The department is budgeted to have 31 firefighter paramedics and 24 firefighters/EMTs. All non-command staff firefighters also are either paramedics or EMTs.

Four firefighters are in training to become paramedics, which takes three years, Leonard said. The department is short five paramedics even with the two recent hires, which were for vacant positions.

Finding a qualified candidate who is a firefighter and paramedic is difficult, Hines said.

City officials also are working on addressing the need for more fire stations to fill in gaps.

The city also is in the process of buying property for the city's fifth fire station on 10th Avenue and Kellogg Street, Hines said.

City staff recently met with Williams Pipeline, which owns a pipeline that goes under the property, because of concerns with easements. Hines said he believes they have a solution and hope to come to an agreement with the company next month. Then, the city could finalize the sale in June.

City officials will be working on plans for how to pay for construction of the fifth station, Hines said. The goal is to start construction in early 2015.

Officials also are working with developers in the Southridge area to identify property for another fire station in the southwest part of the city, Hines said.

The city is also working with Benton Fire District 1 on the possibility of building a joint fire station in southeast Kennewick, Hines said.

Also Tuesday:

-- Consultants identified 13 high priority projects along the 5.5-mile stretch of Clearwater Avenue between Highway 395 and Leslie Road.

The recommendations are part of an effort dubbed the "Safe Clearwater Project." A $2.12 million federal grant is paying to create an access plan using public input, as well as providing money for some construction and to buy right of way land.

Collision history, traffic volumes and operational issues were examined to determine projects that would improve safety, said Jon Pascal, a principal with Transpo Group of Kirkland. Input also was included from local businesses and the public.

In three years, Clearwater Avenue has had 356 collisions, including some fatal crashes, according to the city. Crashes range from rear-end collisions to right angle crashes and side swipes as drivers try to move their vehicles around other cars.

In a $1.1 million project, curbing would be added on Clearwater Avenue near Highway 395 and some of the driveways into the parking lot with Starbucks and Gold's Gym would become right-in and right-out turns only. Access would also be reconfigured to Panda Express.

Another $1.2 million project would add an additional lane for both north and south directions on Union Street at the intersection with Clearwater Avenue, Pascal said. That would add dual left turn lanes and would reduce some of the queuing at the intersection.

One $120,000 on Clearwater Avenue near Arthur Street would add a designated pedestrian crossing with flashing medians, a bus pullout area and a raised median, Pascal said. One driveway to a business would change to a right-in and right-out only.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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