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If there is safety in numbers, what is the number of firefighters Pittsburgh needs? Now a CMU researcher has done the math.

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Illustrator: WAYNO

 

To firefighters union president Joe King, Pittsburgh is incomparable.

 

If you want to figure out how many firefighters and fire stations we need by comparing Pittsburgh to anyplace else, he cautions, "you can't use a St. Louis, Indianapolis, [or] any structure of a fire department in Ohio, because it's flat terrain, and their vehicles can travel much faster to an incident than we can."

 

In fact, he says of Pittsburgh, there is "no scientific evidence that it's even comparable" to anywhere. "We don't use anybody," he explains, when determining the number of stations and fire personnel the city ought to have.

 

On Oct. 15, Carnegie Mellon University student Amy Jo Wendholt released a study that shows, scientifically, how the City of Pittsburgh might use several models to calculate just how few fire stations it needs. While Wendholt isn't making safety recommendations, she does demonstrate how, with as few as a dozen fire truck companies and four ladder truck companies, the city can be covered as national fire safety groups recommend. She is hoping the city will adopt her calculation methods as they struggle to right a budget deficit often blamed, in part, on the excessive cost of public safety.

 

City officials are trying to merge the 845 full-time firefighters with paramedics in the city's Emergency Medical Services and reduce both their numbers, at a savings of millions of dollars. The politics of any such move are complicated -- firefighters have a no-layoff contract until 2005, while paramedics and other city departments already experienced layoffs in August. But politics aside, how much fire department staffing does the city need, purely for safety?

 

"We built this structure," says King of the current complement of 35 fire stations with 45 units: 33 engine companies with water trucks, 11 ladder truck companies and 1 mobile air compressor to replenish air bottles on firemen's backs. "We know where our troubles are," he adds, and have made adjustments for the hilly terrain and sometimes tiny winding streets, the bridges with their weight restrictions and the housing density, among other factors.

 

Fire Chief Peter J. Micheli Jr. doesn't believe Pittsburgh is quite as exceptional a place in which to battle blazes. "Some of our topography is a little unique," he says. "We don't have a flat, grid [street] system. But all in all with modern equipment everything is pretty equal. [Crossing] bridges is no problem."

 

King concedes that the city, with 327,898 people as of last year, has dropped tens of thousands in population since the bureau's structure was determined: more than 35,000 from 1990 to 2000, another 6,500 since then.  Paradoxically, he points to Mayor Tom Murphy when trying to prove the continued need for a fire department at decades-old levels. King says that Murphy -- the man who gave the firefighters their job guarantee, and the very man who now wants to reduce their numbers -- "created so much more housing and industry in the last decade that we firefighters need to stay at current strength."

 

Certainly the numbers don't appear to give credence to such reasoning. Since 1990, the city has approved building permits for 1,193 non-residential buildings and 1,138 residences. But in 2002 alone the city tore down 614 structures. If anything, the growing number of abandoned houses in the city, estimated at 10,000 and every one of them an eventual fire hazard, presents the more compelling argument for current fire protection levels. But King probably realizes that protecting structures in the absence of people -- call it the ghost-town hypothesis -- wouldn't exactly fly.

 

"The longer you keep knocking down the fire stations, the more property loss you're going to have, the more lives are being lost," King asserts. Firefighters need to enter structures as early as possible, he emphasizes; they need to be prepared for the largest fires. "We haven't improved in [the number of] our hydrants. We haven't improved our weight limits on bridges." And the terrain certainly hasn't changed.

 

In fact, King concludes, if you studied the city's fire department today, you'd conclude that "we don't have enough units now."

 

The National Fire Protection Association, whose recommendations help determine fire staffing, has studied every fire department in America. According to the NFPA, the highest number of full-time, paid firefighters in a city of around Pittsburgh's size (250,000-499,999 people), is 2.97 per thousand people. The median is 1.20 for all cities of that size and 2.19 for such cities in the denser Northeast, with its older housing.

 

Pittsburgh has 2.58 firefighters per thousand people, and apparently rising, which is decidedly on the high end of that scale.

 

Trouble is, even the National Fire Protection Association says you can't determine the safest firefighting numbers that way.

 

Budget-minded city study commissions have long recommended a lower number of firefighters and stations. In October 1996, the Competitive Pittsburgh Task Force cited a decrease in fire risk in recent years, due to improved building codes, sprinklers and smoke detectors -- resulting in a 76 percent reduction in structure fires in the previous two decades -- without a reduction in fire protection costs. It also cited a 1991 city study that concluded: "The City has more firefighters and fire stations on a per capita and per square mile basis, and a shorter work week than most comparable cities."

 

This fall, the conservative Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, in comparing fire department budgets to 11 U.S. cities with populations 305,000 to 380,000, determined that Pittsburgh had the highest per capita fire expenditure, at $234 per person. "If Pittsburgh's [fire] spending could have been lowered to the average for those cities (with the highest and lowest readings not included) they would be spending ... $117 per capita on fire. At these levels, Pittsburgh would realize savings of roughly $63 million compared to the 2002 actual expenditures."

 

So how does the National Fire Protection Association determine the safest way to staff a fire department? Crews of full-time firefighters should take only one minute or less from the fire call to begin their response, the NFPA recommends. It should take only four minutes or less for the first fire engine to arrive at the scene of a fire and eight minutes or less for the entire initial fire crew to arrive. According to Fire Chief Micheli, it means putting 16 people at a fire on the first alarm.

 

That's the NFPA's "Standard 1710." While 1710 sets staffing levels for certain equipment, it says nothing about how many firefighters ought to be in Pittsburgh or any other city to help it meet these four- and eight-minute deployment requirements.

 

Mayoral spokesman Craig Kwiecinski says it's hard to comment on the correct number of firefighters the city needs while it negotiates the merger with EMS, but the city will continue to follow 1710. Fire Chief Micheli, who must live under the firefighter's contract as much as anyone, says the department will of course abide by 1710 too. "The current levels we have now are good," he says, but he is also open to change.

 

"Does this city meet 1710 now?" asks Joe King. "No. Do they meet [1710] in safety manning? Yes. Do they meet them in protective gear? Yes." But not in response times, he says: not in bringing the full force of three engines, one ladder truck and a battalion chief to a fire within eight minutes. King has seen no plan to close specific stations that will do the trick any better, he adds.

 

Until this week, that's where the debates and studies have ended. Now a Carnegie Mellon University student has used computer modeling to show that Pittsburgh should be able to meet 1710 with only 12 engine stations and four ladder truck stations. Those are numbers that may leave at least one side in the fires number game happy, and the other side genuinely alarmed.

 

Amy Jo Wendholt, who is pursuing a master's degree in public policy and management at the H. John Heinz III School at CMU, is quick to point out that her model for figuring fire-fighting efficiency is not meant as a safety recommendation -- it's just a way of looking smartly at the numbers. But if city officials adopt her methods, as she hopes, they will be able to say -- as no nationwide comparison has before now -- that safety can be maintained without maintaining current numbers.

 

The task, Wendholt says in her study, "involves determining the 'right' number of stations to cover a defined area."

 

Wendholt, with money from an InformationWeek Fellowship, used three different models to test what numbers and locations of stations would let trucks and personnel arrive at Pittsburgh fires at 1710-recommended times. She pinpointed the locations of Pittsburghers down to the U.S. Census Block level: about a 1/50 of a square mile, with about 66 housing units and 139 people. She also took into account likely traffic conditions, road speed limits (including how realistic they may be) and the city's "severe changes in altitude," creating a map not just of distances as the crow flies but as the fire truck speeds -- or doesn't.

 

Then, she mapped out on which city blocks all 35 existing stations could meet the four- and eight-minute arrival times, and found that our fire engines now can cover 98 percent of Pittsburgh, and our ladder trucks 99 percent, within those times. In fact, she found that 87 percent of the city is doubly covered and 60 percent has triple coverage from fire engines, which arrive first with their hoses. Ladder trucks have double coverage of 88 percent of the city currently, and triple coverage of 76 percent.

 

Reducing the fire bureau by almost two-thirds to 12 fire engine stations and four ladder truck stations still had 91 percent of the population only four minutes away from an engine and eight minutes away from a ladder company. That's within the 90 percent coverage called for by 1710.

 

Even if the city seeks maximum protection -- the nearly 100 percent coverage it enjoys now -- that can be accomplished with only 20 engine stations and 8 ladder truck stations, Wendholt found. In fact, with these stations in the right location -- which Wendholt's report does not detail -- the city is still doubly covered by engines 51 percent of the time and by ladders 77 percent of the time.

 

There are some uncertainties within Wendholt's study. While Mayor Murphy has lately cited the 350 structure fires that bureau personnel battled last year, Wendholt studied all 1,116 times fire trucks responded to a fire call in 2002. Placing them all on a map, Wendholt figured that the fastest possible firefighter travel time was one second at minimum (for structures next door to the station, one assumes) and the slowest was 13 minutes. The average was two minutes and two seconds. But when she looked at the fire bureau's actual response-time data, she found the average to be about two minutes and 20 seconds; the longest was 12 minutes. The fire bureau actually recorded 123 response times of zero -- and even claimed a few negative numbers.

 

But all in all, Wendholt's hypothetical calls, averaging 2:02, took 18 seconds less than real fire calls, which averaged 2:20.

 

She writes off the bureau's speed-of-light-defying alarm responses of zero seconds (or less) simply as errors, but she also allows that the department's slightly longer average response time may be due to several factors not included in her study: actual traffic jams, severe weather and the fact that a station may be responding to more than one call at a time.

 

So she recalculated and found that, even if it takes actual fire trucks 18 seconds longer all around, the bureau can still meet mandated arrival times with 15 engine stations and the same four ladder truck stations.

 

"We're the first vehicle that is dispatched to any medical call," fire union head Joe King points out. EMS units respond only to medical emergencies, while police are deployed only to chase down potential crimes. But anything the average citizen thinks is an emergency, "we get 'em all," he says. Deciding fire protection levels purely by setting a monetary goal for fire spending, as he feels the city has been attempting, is "unreasonable. You'll be downgrading the quality of service as we know it today."

 

And the city has "never looked -- scientifically looked -- at how you're going to continue service tomorrow," after any reductions, he says.

 

Should the city find the Wendholt study scientific enough, it could mean a new way of fighting fire with firefighting data.

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