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Petaluma firefighters see increased workload

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Petaluma aids in West Coast blazes

The Petaluma Fire Department has been doing its part to support wildfire suppression efforts this season, with six firefighters deployed throughout the West Coast.

OES 286, a state-owned engine used for structure fires and protection, left July 25 with several Petaluma firefighters in-tow for the Cranston Fire in San Bernardino County. After a few days in Southern California, the strike team, which included Captain Jude Prokop, engineers Bryan Drees and Shay Burke, and firefighter/paramedic Jamin Perkins, was redirected to the sprawling Mendocino Complex fires.

Firefighter Trevor Steis is also at the Mendocino Complex as a fire-line EMT, providing medical support to fellow firefighters.

Captain Chad Costa was at the Mendocino Complex as a division supervisor but was redeployed as part of an incident management team, and is now at the Cougar Fire near Leavenworth, Wash.

The state reimburses the city for all personnel costs accrued while providing wildfire support, which includes overtime pay for crewmembers in Petaluma that help cover the necessary shifts.

Assistant Fire Chief Jeff Schach didn’t sugarcoat it — Petaluma’s firefighters are exhausted.

With about 4,000 calls for service by mid-July, the fire department is well on its way to shattering its annual record for incident responses, a mark they actually just set last year.

And the year before that.

And the year before that.

In 2017, the Petaluma Fire Department was called into action a record 6,744 times. That includes structure fires, vegetation fires, vehicle fires, car accidents, rescues, medical aid, fire alarms, hazardous conditions – the entire scope of their mandate. In the fiscal year 2015-16, they had 6,290 incident responses. In 2014-15, there were 5,826.

Since 2011, the fire department has responded to 5,000 or more calls every single year, and that total has gone up by 5 percent annually since 2013.

“In four years we’ve had a 32 percent increase in calls,” Schach said. “I don’t have the magic (reason as to why), but absolutely we’re seeing an aging population. We’re seeing the population increase. We had a huge spike in calls for service during the October wildfires.”

False alarms have doubled over the last four years, likely attributed to new alarm systems as the city continues see increased construction and new developments, Schach said.

The PFD rotates its staff through 48-hour shifts, working three separate crews two days on and four days off. Typically, there are 10 workers dedicated to the fire engine, four working the ambulance and one chief.

Chief Leonard Thompson said the resiliency and confidence of the staff has been fluctuating as the demand keeps getting higher.

“If you’ve got an increased call load, especially after midnight when guys are really tired, morale goes down as a result of that,” said Thompson. “You go out, call after call, and you don’t get any rest eight or nine calls after midnight, it becomes problematic.”

Much of the escalation can be attributed to more frequent calls for medical emergencies, which fire officials say account for some 65 percent of the total output, and went up by 24 percent between 2013 and 2017. Schach said the growing homeless population, drug-related overdoses and emergencies at lower-income households that might not have access to preventative care have contributed to a greater demand for their ambulances.

Commuter traffic and the growing number of accidents along Lakeville Highway have also been a factor, Thompson said.

Petaluma’s fire department has been providing the city’s emergency medical service since the 1930s, and maintained that provision even after private paramedics became the norm in the 1980s in municipalities around the country.

“When paramedics came on board, a lot of fire departments said, ‘OK, good. We’re out of it now,’” Schach said. “We were good with throwing somebody in a van and taking them to a hospital, but that more intensive care and actually doing advanced life support, some fire departments got out of it and that’s where the private ambulances come.”

In 1981, the PFD hired six staffers dedicated solely for paramedics so its lone ambulance was always staffed. Eight years later, the department added a second ambulance when the call volume was 2,500 per year, Schach said.

Nearly 30 years later, despite population gains of more than 17,000, the size of the department has remained relatively static. There’s currently 58 employees in the agency, 51 of which serve as first responders.

Petaluma aids in West Coast blazes

The Petaluma Fire Department has been doing its part to support wildfire suppression efforts this season, with six firefighters deployed throughout the West Coast.

OES 286, a state-owned engine used for structure fires and protection, left July 25 with several Petaluma firefighters in-tow for the Cranston Fire in San Bernardino County. After a few days in Southern California, the strike team, which included Captain Jude Prokop, engineers Bryan Drees and Shay Burke, and firefighter/paramedic Jamin Perkins, was redirected to the sprawling Mendocino Complex fires.

Firefighter Trevor Steis is also at the Mendocino Complex as a fire-line EMT, providing medical support to fellow firefighters.

Captain Chad Costa was at the Mendocino Complex as a division supervisor but was redeployed as part of an incident management team, and is now at the Cougar Fire near Leavenworth, Wash.

The state reimburses the city for all personnel costs accrued while providing wildfire support, which includes overtime pay for crewmembers in Petaluma that help cover the necessary shifts.

City Councilman Chris Albertson, who served as Petaluma’s fire chief from 2001 to 2008, said he was able to add three firefighters just over a decade ago when overtime hours were steadily going higher, but that didn’t necessarily address the growing needs on the medical side.

For years, city officials have wanted to expand Petaluma’s advanced life support services with a third ambulance, listing it as a priority in goal-setting sessions as well as in the 2025 General Plan, but fiscal constraints have hindered any progress. Schach estimated hiring six employees and financing a van would cost about $1.2 million.

Albertson pointed out that the General Plan also called for one fire suppression worker for every 1,000 residents, which means the city is theoretically nine short of where it would like to be.

While he and Thompson’s predecessor Larry Anderson were unable to pencil out the third medical vehicle, fire officials said they have been working with City Manager John Brown and Financial Director Corey Garberolio recently to uncover creative ways on how to fund it.

“This should be one of the council’s priorities for the 2019 calendar year,” Albertson said, who is retiring from the council this fall.

Using the fire department as the primary medical response service is a way to both earn back revenue and justify staff increases. The PFD can hire cross-trained first responders that can both douse fires and provide advanced life support, and the city can collect the revenue from the latter because it can bill insurance companies, knocking an estimated $2 million off its annual budget, according to fire officials.

One way to uncover funding for a third ambulance would be raising their insurance rates.

“We’re at the lower end of the spectrum when it comes to charging folks for transportation and medical care,” Thompson said. “What we’d like to do is increase our fees so we’re in the middle of the pack versus the extreme. I think when you look at the privates, they’re charging twice as much. We’re the bargain.”

However, raising insurance rates doesn’t always yield returns since individual policies can vary drastically, and many in need don’t always have insurance. That means charging insurance providers more will only be part of the solution, forcing city officials to unearth revenue elsewhere in order to fund the third vehicle.

Until that happens, an unsettling reality will continue to become commonplace for the PFD. When both ambulances are responding and a third emergency gets called in, the department has found itself turning to private paramedics or, in some cases, EMS units from neighboring cities – something Schach estimated happened some 200 times last year.

And not only does that lead to missed opportunities for revenue, but it could also result in longer response times for Petalumans, which Thompson said is the “bread and butter” of his department.

“You want to be on-scene quickly,” he said. “There’s a national standard that we try to adhere to, and we can’t meet that goal if the resources are limited.”

(Contact News Editor Yousef Baig at yousef.baig@arguscourier.com or 776-8461, and on Twitter @YousefBaig.)