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Evolving fire services affect bottom line

The days when a firefighter’s main job was responding to a structure fire are gone. While safety education and improved fire codes have helped cut the number of structure fires, the scope of what a fire department does has expanded.

Traditional firefighting has been replaced by a combination of medical calls, hazardous material incidents, vehicle rescues, wildland fires and agricultural accidents. And the list is growing.

While the expanded role results in safer communities, the new services may require changes in equipment, training and staffing, which in turn increases the cost to run the department.

Fire officials have been forced to be creative and think strategically about the best way to respond to calls.

For example, Chief Herbert Williams with the Mount Pleasant Fire Department, where more than 65 percent of the calls are for medical emergencies, has changed how his 122 paid personnel respond.

"My business has seen a big change in the past seven to 10 years," said Williams, who has been chief for 10 years and with the department for 30. "About eight years ago, I put paramedics on all vehicles."

Those vehicles have changed, too. While his department has three ladder trucks and nine engines, he has added two quick response vehicles, with a third expected this year. The smaller SUVs are able to respond quickly and easily to medical calls, and have resulted in savings to the department. "I can outfit one of those vehicles for $75,000 to $90,000, compared to $500,000 for an engine," he said.

The QRVs use less fuel, can easily maneuver through traffic and are able to be parked easily when responding to a medical call. Plus, dispatching them instead of an engine helps relieve costly wear-and-tear on the big trucks. The department’s two QRVs handle about 60 percent of the medical calls made to the department. Chief Williams said that number should increase to 80 percent when the third vehicle arrives later this year.

That’s significant, because an aging population results in an increase in medical calls each year. "Those medical calls are everything from a broken finger to having to cut someone out of a vehicle," Chief Williams said.

The equipment on fire vehicles has changed dramatically, too. Computers on fire trucks now can help firefighters determine where an airbag, electric car battery and other features are located on a specific car involved in a vehicle accident. In addition, equipment for a vehicle extraction—the "jaws of life"—has changed as cars have changed.

"Extraction tools are quicker, better, stronger and lighter weight," according to Todd Williams. Now, one firefighter can pick it up, maneuver it and not incur a back injury. "They’ve made the tools better and safer, but that also drives the price up."

Departments are also looking at where and when personnel is needed to help best serve the public and balance budgets.

Some departments, like the beach community of Isle of Palms, use part-time personnel and volunteers to help answer the increase in calls during the tourist season, said Chief Anne Graham. Also, she moved some of her firefighters off the fire engines and put them in an outfitted pickup truck to respond to many calls.

Graham and other fire chiefs said personnel need a much broader range of training than in the past, which results in a significant amount of overtime costs.

Gaffney employs 33 full-time firefighters, 10 part-timers and three administrative staff in the fire department. As demands increase, budgets dwindle and costs rise, Fire Chief James Caggiano said departments must rely more on receiving grants (which are dwindling), reducing variable costs by being more efficient, watching expenditures and participating in mutual aid agreements with other fire departments.

Joe Palmer, director of the S.C. State Firefighters’ Association, said expectations for fire departments will continue to change and evolve.

"The evolution of services can be catalogued rather succinctly," Palmer said. In the 1960s, many nonmunicipal fire suppression delivery systems organized in South Carolina. In the 70s, fire training standards and expectations of services were formalized. In the 80s, fire departments added hazardous materials response to services offered and in the 90s added rescue events, such as confined space and trench rescues. Because of the events of 9/11, fire departments began training on terrorism response and emergency preparedness in the 2000s. Finally in the 2010s, fire departments began providing a higher level of emergency medicine services.

Palmer said society’s expectations are higher than ever. When the public sees what’s possible on TV or through social media, they want that service in their community. Sometimes that isn’t practical.

Palmer predicts that municipal fire departments will be faced with the challenge of analyzing service expectations and capabilities with available resources to meet those needs. "This will foster frank conversations with the public about safety and local choices about what can and can’t be done."