Low staffing levels at Ashland Fire & Rescue are compromising the department's ability to respond to calls, say Fire Chief John Karns and past Chief Keith Woodley.
Not enough firefighter/paramedics are on duty to respond quickly when multiple calls for help come in, Woodley said.
The department also hasn't been sending out enough firefighter/paramedics on ambulance calls for issues such as chest pain that could rapidly morph into more serious medical emergencies such as heart attacks. Four people are needed to adequately handle a heart attack victim, Karns said.
To save money, the city of Ashland stopped doing regular maintenance on fire hydrants years ago. Firefighters were unable to open two hydrants during the Siskiyou fire that burned on the outskirts of town last September. They had to get help from the Ashland Public Works Department in order to use the hydrants, Karns said.
Woodley retired from his post in December 2008. Karns, who previously worked in California, took over as head of Ashland Fire & Rescue in June 2009.
When he was fire chief, Woodley said he regularly warned city officials that the fire department was short-staffed.
"There's not much capacity to handle more than one call at a time," he said. "That's fine if you're the first person to call, but if you're the second or the third, the risk goes up exponentially. Many times the only person left at the fire station was myself. Calls tend to bunch up and you very quickly lose the capacity to respond to subsequent calls."
Both Woodley and Karns said the department is overly reliant on mutual-aid agreements with surrounding communities to respond to each other's emergencies.
Woodley said mutual-aid agreements are beneficial because all communities are dealing with limited resources, but they are no substitute for Ashland Fire & Rescue having enough firefighter/paramedics on its own payroll.
"We call on neighboring fire departments. You're gambling that they're not out on a call," he said.
In the past few months, Karns has brought many of his concerns about the fire department to the Ashland City Council.
"He's doing his job," Woodley said. "Sometimes we don't like the message."
Karns said Ashland Fire & Rescue sends out an ambulance with two firefighter/paramedics on Type C calls involving problems such as chest pain and slight difficulty in breathing. Those can escalate into Type D emergencies, such as heart attack and stroke.
Because of budget problems, the department doesn't send a fire engine with two firefighter/paramedics to back up the two in the ambulance, Karns said.
Four people are needed to accomplish all the tasks associated with responding to a heart attack, he said.
"I'd rather send out an engine and have them turn around than have them sit in the fire station while a C turns into a D. I can't support the way we're doing it," Karns said.
Residents regularly ask why a fire engine should respond to a medical call. Karns said that gives the firefighter/paramedics the ability to leave a medical scene if they're not needed and quickly respond to a fire. Fire engines carry medical gear, but don't transport patients to hospitals.
Karns said he wants to send an ambulance plus a fire engine out on Type C medical calls, even if that causes the fire department's already high call-back rate to skyrocket. The department averages 44 call-backs each month.
The department calls back off-duty personnel when the number of people left at the fire station drops below four. Four paramedics are needed to respond to heart attacks and strokes. State rules also require two firefighters to wait outside if two firefighters go inside a burning house or building, Karns said.
Ashland Fire & Rescue is seeing more instances of ambulances not responding within time goals, according to the most recent data from the department.
In 2000, the department failed to hit its time goals on just four out of 1,676 calls. In 2008, the failure number hit 105 out of 1,625 calls.
Response time goals range from eight minutes within the urban area to four hours for search and rescue operations.
Ashland Fire & Rescue's ambulance service area is 650 square miles.
Its firefighting service area is far smaller at 6.4 square miles.
Ambulances reached people suffering major Type D problems such as heart attacks within eight minutes 77 percent of the time in 2010. That's down from 80 percent of the time in 2006.
Ambulances responded to people suffering from Type C problems such as chest pain in eight minutes 78 percent of the time in 2010, down from 84 percent of the time in 2006, Ashland Fire & Rescue data showed.
Karns said those times are for the department's entire ambulance service area.
Ashland Fire & Rescue strives to arrive at medical calls in town within five minutes. It meets or comes very close to hitting that goal 80 percent of the time, Karns said.
The weak link on fires
When the fire insurance industry organization Insurance Information Services last inspected Ashland for its ability to handle fires in 2005, it found that Ashland Fire & Rescue was the weak link in the community's fire response system.
The Ashland Daily Tidings obtained information about the ISO rating through a public records request.
ISO ratings are used by insurance companies to set fire insurance rates.
According to ISO, the ratings are accurate predictors of fire response abilities.
ISO statistics show that communities with the worst ratings suffer fire losses that are at least double those of communities with the best ratings.
Out of a possible score of 100 points, ISO deducted 36.34 points, leaving Ashland with a score of 63.66 points.
The dispatch system was responsible for Ashland losing 1.7 points, while the water system accounted for a loss of 4.02 points.
Weaknesses with the fire department caused ISO to deduct 23.31 points.
The difference between the strength of the dispatch and water systems compared to the fire department's weaknesses caused ISO to penalize Ashland by lopping another 7.31 points off.
The fire department mainly lost points because of inadequate staffing, according to the ISO report.
And it got dinged on staffing even though it likely counted non-Ashland Fire & Rescue firefighters when reporting its minimum staffing level.
Karns said firefighter staffing at the department ranges from seven to nine people per shift, with seven on duty two-thirds of the time.
Ashland Fire & Rescue reported that its minimum staffing was nine firefighters.
Woodley said he doesn't remember the specifics of how the department counted its staffing for ISO. But he said it may have reported a minimum staff number of nine because it has an agreement that Jackson County Fire District No. 5 will always send over a fire engine with firefighters when Ashland has a structure fire — as long as that department has an engine available.
Ashland Fire & Rescue, in turn, has agreed to help the county department, Woodley said.
"We get one engine from the county on all structural fires. Both departments calculated that in their daily staffing," he said. "But that engine is 10 to 15 minutes out, or it may not be available at all. The savings for District 5 and us was $250,000 a year, but it's not a guarantee. It's not a substitute for your own staffing."
ISO Risk Decision Services Vice President Mike Waters said that when ISO grades a city on its firefighting capabilities and assesses its staffing, it can give credit to a city that has an automatic aid agreement with another community to get help on fires.
Increasing staff costly
Karns said his 10-year goal is to eventually have 11 firefighter/paramedics working on each shift, with another two volunteers to help.
Implementing such a plan would be costly.
The salary range for a firefighter/paramedic is $49,938 to $61,990 this fiscal year. Benefit costs vary based on factors such as whether a city employee receives individual or family health insurance.
The city of Ashland is already struggling with budget problems.
In 2008, the Ashland Citizens' Budget Committee and City Council cut Ashland Fire & Rescue's fire inspector.
Karns recently started a program for the fire marshal and regular firefighters to check for fire hazards in buildings. Businesses must pay fees for the inspections based on building size.
In 2009, the Budget Committee and City Council saved two firefighter/paramedic positions from being cut by raising property taxes.
Woodley said fire chiefs have a duty to give accurate assessments of the state of their fire departments. It's then up to communities to decide how well they will fund their departments.
Karns said he has no expectation that the fire department's staffing problems will be resolved in the next few years.
"The money simply is not there," he said. "My job is to chart a course and make people aware of the issues."
Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.