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Fire department response times will slow under budget plans, says chief

Rosemary Shinohara
A steady rain falls on the Anchorage Fire Department Southport Fire Station on Friday, October 5, 2012. The station will be closed if either of Anchorage, AK Mayor Dan Sullivan's proposed budgets are passed. 1210050
Bob Hallinen
Fire fighter Aaron Robinson, left, and battalion chief Mark Mew, right give Anchorage Assembly member Dick Trani a tour of the Anchorage Fire Department Southport Fire Station on Friday, October 5, 2012. The station will be closed if either of Anchorage, AK Mayor Dan Sullivan's proposed budgets are passed. 1210050
Bob Hallinen
Anchorage Fire Department engineer Eric Tuott checks his personal air pack at the station on Friday, October 5, 2012. The Anchorage Fire Department Southport Fire Station will be closed if either of Anchorage, AK Mayor Dan Sullivan's proposed budgets are passed.
Bob Hallinen

Anchorage Fire Chief Chris Bushue says the 2013 budget cuts proposed for his department are the most significant in the 30 years he's been with the department and will slow responses to emergencies.

That's true even under Plan B, the less drastic of two budget versions presented by Mayor Dan Sullivan this week, the chief said in an interview.

"I think we have provided a very good level of service right now. This is going to be a very significant hit to the city," Bushue said.

"We will see an increase in response times across the city," he said. How much and how often the service cuts will increase fire crew or medic response times is a question, he said.

Sullivan unveiled two budget proposals Tuesday. Plan A calls for $30 million in cuts to services. Plan B, which Sullivan said he is recommending, taps new revenues and slices about $18 million in services.

Sullivan said at a press briefing Wednesday that he believes people are pretty satisfied with the current level of government and that Plan B "goes a long way" toward maintaining that level.

"There are no active police or firefighter layoffs," the mayor said.

But Sullivan said Friday that while the $18 million shortfall is better than a $30 million one, it's still the largest shortfall the administration has faced since he took office in 2009.

It's harder to cut this year because the city has already reorganized and become more efficient, and what's left is cutting services, Sullivan said.

Ten vacant EMT and firefighter positions would be eliminated under the B budget.

Under Plan B, the Fire Department:

• Reduces overtime to $1.2 million from $3.2 million budgeted for this year.

• Closes Southport Fire Station 15 in southwest Anchorage.

• Shuts down a ladder truck in Eagle River.

• Begins something called "flexible staffing cascade," which is similar to the rolling closures of equipment at fire stations across the city that occurred in 2009 to save money.

Sullivan stopped the rolling closures after he came into office. 

PERIODIC CLOSURES

Cutting overtime by almost two-thirds means the department will have to once again shut down equipment when too many firefighters are out, Bushue said.

This time, instead of scheduling closures around the city, the department has designated two stations to close temporarily if staffing is too thin: First, Station 14 at Tudor and Baxter roads would shut down, then, if needed, Station 10 in the Bear Valley-Rabbit Creek area would close.

"There's potential for closures beyond that," Bushue said, but they haven't been designated yet.

Firefighters union president Rod Harris said the department will have 10 percent less equipment on the road in January under Plan B -- 18 fire companies (a ladder truck or fire engine) instead of 20 that are on the road now.

"It's a 10 percent decrease in the ability to deliver service," Harris said.

To keep the extra two rigs operating -- one at Southport and one in Eagle River -- would take about $2 million more, he said.

Harris said the city may have more money available for 2013 than Sullivan is intending to use.

With such deep cuts, "He's making a statement toward the fire department here," Harris said.

"There's no statement. Every department has had to find savings," Sullivan said.

The mayor said there may be money left over from the 2012 budget when it's all sorted out early next year, but that would be one-time money.

"The worst thing we can do is use one-time money for recurring expenses," Sullivan said.

INSURANCE UP?

Both Bushue and Harris predicted insurance ratings for Anchorage would drop to a less favorable ranking if the cuts go into effect and are maintained.

Bushue said insurance raters now rank the city Class 2 of 10, where 1 is best.

"If they come back and audit the fire department again, and we have closed these companies, I can guarantee we will not maintain Class 2," Bushue said. The city barely made it into that classification as it was, he said.

Sullivan said it's hard to predict what will happen with insurance ratings.

SOUTHPORT

Southport, which would close under both budget scenarios, is not as busy as most stations and has only one rig.

It gets 600 calls a year, compared to 4,000 for the downtown station, said Bob Hoffman, president of the Bayshore-Klatt Community Council.

But without its own station, Southport residents would have to rely on Station 7 in Jewel Lake or Station 9 on Huffman Road, Hoffman said.

"If they're busy, one went to the airport and one went to an accident on the Seward Highway, the response time goes to 15-plus minutes," Hoffman said. "The whole reason the station was put in that area was to get rid of 15-minute response times."

On Thursday, a Southport man nearly severed his leg in a home accident, Hoffman said. "The paramedics got there quickly and were able to stop the bleeding, give him first aid and get him to the hospital," he said.

The fire department has a goal of getting to a structure fire or to the location of a cardiac arrest, for example, within four minutes 90 percent of the time, according to budget documents.

EAGLE RIVER AND BEAR VALLEY

Cutbacks at two fire stations that would be affected, in Eagle River and Bear Valley, are problematic because of their isolation, Chief Bushue said.

If Bear Valley is temporarily closed due to short staffing, the next closest stations are at O'Malley and Huffman roads, he said. Travelling uphill slows rigs, he said.

"Whatever resources we send are going to be a long time coming."

If a ladder truck is taken out of service in Eagle River, as is proposed, three of the 10 firefighters who work there go with it, Harris said.

If Eagle River needed help from firefighters in the Anchorage Bowl, that would be a 15-minute drive, Harris said.

"We'd be going backward in the level of service to those people out there," he said.

The ladder truck carries extrication equipment, he said. And the ability to do swift water rescues would be hurt, he said.

Bill Starr, Anchorage Assembly budget chairman, represents Eagle River and says he's open to the idea of replacing the ladder truck with a different piece of equipment than in Eagle River.

"A staffing reduction isn't something I would entertain," Starr said.

The Assembly scheduled public hearings on the budget Oct. 23 and Oct. 30.


By ROSEMARY SHINOHARA
rshinohara@adn.com