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Fire Department budget focuses on staff, prevention

May 29, 2015
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The budget introduced to the Grand Rapids City Commission earlier this month includes a recommendation for $27.6 million in support of the Grand Rapids Fire Department.

Items that will be supported include additional staff, maintaining operations at all 11 fire stations, and a fire prevention program that helps put smoke detectors in homes across the city.

“This year is the first time we will have settled on the proper staffing level for the fire department,” said Greg Sundstrom, Grand Rapids city manager.

Sundstrom said the city has been working to determine the appropriate level of staffing for the city’s fire department that will allow it to maintain a safe community.

“There was lots of study that went into this to understand the relationship between staffing level and our ability to buy outcomes,” he said.

He said some of the questions asked in determining proper staffing levels were: “How many firefighters can we get on scene to put out a structure fire? How quickly can they arrive? What is our ability to respond for a second simultaneous emergency call?”

The answer is between 199 and 204 fire department personnel.

The fire department is requesting funding for 199 personnel, which includes hiring 10 now and implements what Sundstrom called a dynamic staffing plan, similar to what has been done with the city’s police department personnel.

The goal is to maintain a staff level of 199 to 204 as the department handles expected retirements over the next several years.

“We budget at 199 thinking that half the year we will be below and half the year we’ll be above,” Sundstrom said.

Sundstrom said he is also excited about the continuation of a fire prevention program he says is showing early signs of success. The fire department is offering voluntary fire safety inspections to all of the city’s residences, which includes the installation of smoke detectors.

“We’ve already inspected over 3,500 homes and we’ve installed over 19,000 smoke detectors,” Sundstrom said.

He noted the city is already seeing a return on its investment.

“It’s still early, but what we’ve already noticed is, where we’ve installed smoke detectors, there is a lesser incidence of fire, and when there is a fire there is a lesser property loss,” he said.

Sundstrom said it’s still early to make big conclusions regarding the program’s effectiveness in preventing fire and decreasing fire damage, but he is optimistic the early signs of success will continue.

The fire department’s staffing levels and fire prevention efforts are part of its “outcomes-driven approach.”

“We focus heavily on the levels of service we provide to our customers,” said Brad Brown, GRFD captain, Planning Division. “We are constantly analyzing data and making slight changes to our deployment model to meet our goals.”

One impact of the outcomes-based model has been an impressive Insurance Service Office Public Protection Classification rating. ISO rates every fire department in the country on a scale of 1 (best) to 10 (worst), and those results are provided to insurance companies, many of which use the information in the underwriting process.

“Public Protection Classification ratings are one of the many factors that affect insurance premiums, with a better rating cascading into many variables,” Brown said.

“Age of the structure, construction material and fire loss history in a particular area also affect the base rate. Factors such as property value, deductible amount, multiple policies, security systems and credit ratings also affect an individual’s rates.”

In 2011, the GRFD underwent an ISO evaluation and moved from a Class 3 to a Class 2 ranking.

“We are one of two highest-ranked departments in Michigan, placing us in the top 0.09 percent,” Brown said. “And, we are one of the top 1,014 departments in the country, placing us in the top 1.77 percent.”

Though the ISO ranking is important, Brown said it is not a main factor in the city’s budgeting process.

“Although ISO is a very important measurement tool on the preparedness and capability level of the GRFD, the organization is more focused on a holistic risk management approach,” Brown said. “If budgetary needs change, it will not be directly related to ISO but system-wide needs to address gaps in our coverage, new risks in the community or changing demands from our citizens and business owners.”

In fact, Brown said the city has decided to pursue a more outcome-driven international accreditation model as its main performance measurement tool for planning.

“The model is administered by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and includes four main parts: a community-driven strategic plan; a self-assessment manual consisting of 10 categories and 253 performance indicators; a comprehensive risk assessment of the community; and, finally, a standards of coverage document with clearly defined targets and goals.”

The GRFD will finalize the multi-year project this fall and be eligible for the award in early 2016.

Brown said GRFD would be one of only 207 accredited fire departments in the world if it receives the accreditation.

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