Long-awaited audit of fire department, 911 system expected soon

Nathaniel Herz

A much-anticipated public safety study is expected to be released to the Sullivan administration by Friday, according to Municipal Manager George Vakalis.

The study, which was delayed while a contractor fixed inaccuracies in initial drafts, examines the management of the Anchorage Fire Department, and the operations of the city's 911 system -- with an eye towards the centralization of police and fire dispatch, which are currently separate.

The delay has led to a public records request from the city firefighters union, and to questions from union leaders and an Assembly member about whether city officials were trying to slow the study's release or influence its findings. But Internal Audit Director Peter Raiskums, whose department is overseeing the study's contractor, said that was not the case.

"There's been no political pressure put to sway the conclusions or the opinions of the contractor," he said in an interview Thursday. "This has been a process to ensure that when the final thing comes out, everything in there is as factually accurate as we can get it."

The study's results are eagerly anticipated by the members of the firefighters union, who, like other city workers, have been battling the Sullivan administration over labor practices.

"If we're doing something wrong, we want to know, and if we're doing something right, we want to know," said Mike Stumbaugh, the union's president. He said the group filed its records request because members were "tired of waiting."

The two-part study was ordered in mid-June, Raiskums said, from the California-based Matrix Consulting Group.

The fire department review includes an analysis of staffing levels, training and equipment, response times, and station locations.

The 911 review analyzed the fire and police departments' dispatch systems, as well as their records management. It includes a feasibility study examining whether the two departments' systems could be merged, with recommendations for elements to be upgraded or replaced -- and an accounting of potential costs and benefits.

The study's findings are likely to influence policy, and could be contentious, given that some of the recommendations may lead to staffing changes.

Vakalis, the municipal manager, said in an interview Thursday that the city is proposing the relocation of two existing fire stations, which could be validated by the study.

And Assemblyman Bill Starr said he's planning to propose a budget amendment that includes some type of consolidation of dispatchers and upgrades to 911 technology -- and he wants to use the study's results to help guide him.

But time is running out for him to do that, he said, with the Assembly poised to adopt the budget at its next meeting, on Nov. 19, though approval can be pushed back.

"That window's starting to close," Starr said.

Vakalis said he expected to receive the study either Thursday evening or Friday.

He declined to confirm whether any additional changes would be necessary, but added that he anticipated distributing the report to Assembly members and scheduling a work session on it within the next three to four weeks -- with a goal of doing so before the Nov. 19 meeting. The report would be released to the public after it's released to the Assembly, Vakalis added.

The delays stemmed from the need to correct what Raiskums, the city's audit director, called "factual errors" in the draft versions -- a process that took even longer, he added, because the police and fire chiefs were both out of the office at times when the drafts were presented.

Raiskums cited an omission of the fire department's contracted doctor from an initial organizational chart as an example of the inaccuracies.

But the study's conclusions and opinions did not need to be adjusted, said Raiskums, who added that he was "very pleased and confident that we're getting an independent, unbiased assessment."

Derek Hsieh, the president of the city's police union, was more skeptical of the results, saying that there was a "contractor performance issue."

"If there's actual inaccuracies in a report that we contracted, it begs another question," he said. "What's it worth paying for that?"

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.