A letter from one of our own…

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

We posted this letter yesterday, but the views were so overwhelming we felt the need to share with all viewers. Captain Southwick is an Officer at AFD’s Fire Station 14 (Tudor / Baxter). Station 14 houses a fire engine, water tender, and Battalion Chief 3. This fire station was added to AFD’s service to provide coverage to an area of Anchorage that had unacceptable response times for both fire and medical calls. Fire Station 14 also serves as our Wildland firefighting headquarters during the summer months.

Captain Southwick read a recent response a concerned citizen received from his assembly member when he called to discuss his worry regarding a fire station closure in his area. The individual’s response he received was that fire/ems services were only effected by 1 minute due to closures. Here is his response:

Assembly members,

Is it true that your understanding is that rolling closures only affect response time by about 1 minute?

As an AFD captain going on 19 years of service in this dept I would challenge that assumption. That may be true when the call (fire or ems) is close to the border of the closed company/station and the nearest neighboring company. However, when for instance station 6 is closed and a call comes in from N Muldoon (anywhere along the border by the Glen hwy) it is going to take engine 14 several minutes longer to get there. Engine 14 would be considered the second in engine east of Boniface. You could make a similar scenario for every response area in town.

Granted 2 or 3 minutes won’t make a major difference on many of the calls we go to. But when it really matters it can absolutely, truly, be the difference between life and death, or at the very least the quality of life for a fire or cardiac arrest victim.

Another factor not commonly considered is our own safety. There is a critical break over point (during a fire) where it goes from a routine, straight forward, fire to a significant fire. When that happens the chances of civilian survival in that structure diminish dramatically. Once that threshold is crossed the difficulty of extinguishment and rescue don’t just get a bit harder to accomplish. The difficulty and complexity starts to compound exponentially. When it crosses that threshold the first arriving engine captain has some very stressful decisions to make, instantly, about how aggressive to be. Part of that decision is based on how long is the next arriving engine or truck going to take to arrive. When we know it is barely a minute out we care be very aggressive because we know back-up is right behind us. When we know we will be operating alone, even for a couple minutes, it alters how deep and fast we can safely enter to protect the egress for a rescue or for us to make that rescue ourselves.

To compound things the safety officers are now gone. Their job was solely to monitor the scene, progress of the fire, results of our actions, and look out for the multitude of other hazards easily overlooked by the crews operating inside. Their job was to be our safety net so that we feel confident that we can be aggressive and do our job without undue risk of death or major injury.

In lieu of safety officers the plan is now to dispatch an additional engine “when deemed necessary” so that captain can take on the safety officer role. As a matter of fact engine 2 was not able to respond to a fire in Mountain View yesterday (9/09/09) because it had been dispatched to do the safety officer role at a minor incident in midtown. So another engine was dispatched in its place. On a day of closures we are now not only short the closed companies but also an additional company if they send one to cover the safety officer job. The city is now down several companies above and beyond the initial response to the original fire. When a second fire occurs (and that does happen occasionally) you can guarantee there are going to be some significant delays. This is especially alarming when we are most certainly going to actually eliminate companies completely in the not too distant future. This scenario is surely spiraling towards a very bad event, either for a citizen or a firefighter. I hate to say it but the admin in house and downtown are glossing this over far too much. While they may not like this being said I challenge them to deny that it is the truth.

Respectfully submitted

Bob Southwick

Fire Captain, AFD, Station 14

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