Flaws in Regional Fire System Cause Delays in Medical Emergencies
The Truckee Meadows' split fire service is causing problems that some officials say could cost lives.
In 2012 the region's fire service split into several individual agencies, each with its own jurisdiction.
At the time, the fire "deconsolidation" was a solution to major budget issues and political disagreements following the recession. But six years later, we still have a split fire service, and it's causing problems that some officials say could cost lives.
While it's clear that first responders and dispatchers are working to get help to people when they need it, they're hampered by a flawed system that's causing delays in responses. The different agencies don't all agree on how to get to a better system, but they do agree that it's needed.
A car crash in early February illustrates why. A vehicle rolled over late on a Friday night on Silver Lake Road, in the Stead area, injuring two people. Truckee Meadows Fire Station 13 is about 200 yards away, but they weren't initially called to respond, because the crash site is technically in the City of Reno's jurisdiction.
Reno dispatched its Engine Nine, from a few miles away on Mt. Vida Street. A little over eight minutes later, Reno arrived on scene. In the meantime, Reno made a call to Truckee Meadows, asking for mutual aid. By the time that call came through, TM's Engine 13 made it there just after Reno's did, about nine minutes since the crash.
To Truckee Meadows Chief Charles Moore, the difference between the time to drive down the block and nine minutes is an unacceptable delay.
"Depending on the call, it could be a matter of life and death," Moore said. "Certainly in a cardiac arrest or someone not breathing, it could make all the difference in the world."
But, there's no wrongdoing here; this was a by-the-book response under the current system.
"Within the context of the current system, we really could not have done it any more efficiently," Reno Fire Chief Dave Cochran said. "We are handicapped sometimes by the system."
The system Chief Cochran is referring to is this: Reno and Truckee Meadows don't have an agreement for automatic aid on calls like this crash, so there's no system to have the closest resource automatically respond. They can call each other for help separately (mutual aid), but that takes time, as we saw in the case of this crash. And time is crucial, because for both agencies, the huge majority of their calls aren't fires. They're medical.
:"I'm personally aware of many, many emergency medical calls that have happened close to our station," Chief Moore said, "and we've not gotten the call."
The issue has prompted talks of consolidation; combining all the major fire agencies-- Reno, Truckee Meadows, and Sparks-- into one unified service. If not that, then at least a regional agreement for automatic aid.
"We are interested in doing that," Chief Cochran said, "and we are hopeful that we can get there in a cooperative fashion with our neighboring jurisdictions."
But there's one big sticking point: while Truckee Meadows and Sparks both have three-person crews, Reno has four-person crews, something its union says is non-negotiable.
"Four-person crews are more efficient, quicker, and safer," Reno Firefighter Association President Bryan Biggs said. "That is a minimum standard. We have fought for that since day one. That is our hill to die on."
The disparity in crew size makes any kind of regional agreement difficult. Four-person crews are more expensive; as a result, Reno hasn't been able to fully staff two of its fire stations for years.
Truckee Meadows and Sparks went to flexible staffing to keep stations open when budgets took a hit, even though TM's union head acknowledges that's not ideal.
"As far as local 3895 is concerned, we would love to have four-man stations," Truckee Meadows Union President Ian Satterfield said. "I think the perfect scenario would be four-man stations, and AVL [Automatic Vehicle Locator technology], closest resource responds, and it's done fiscally responsibly."
But while Satterfield said he thinks that's possible, he wouldn't say it's probable. It would take a lot of political wrangling, and budget increases. Chief Moore said his budget would have to grow 33 percent to get four people on each Truckee Meadows crew-- a big ask.
And there's some politics in the way, too.
"It's the politics of it that really get down to the challenge," Chief Cochran said.
"Everything in the political realm never happens quickly," Chief Moore said, "but this is an issue of life and death for people, and this needs to move quickly."
While Reno and Washoe County are the two biggest players in this agreement, it would also involve Sparks, REMSA, and several others. Truckee Meadows and Sparks already have an automatic aid agreement, and the Sparks fire chief said he's on board for a broader regional agreement.
The Reno's City Council and the Washoe County Commission have directed their chiefs to look into the issue, and the agencies involved did meet in February to get the ball rolling, but so far there aren't any agenda items set on this issue in Reno or Washoe County. Any agreement would likely involve combining the separate dispatch centers and upgrading the technology for dispatch.