Fire department concerned about staffing, response times

Greenwood’s population has grown by more than 20,000 residents since 1998, but the growth of the fire department hasn’t come close to matching it.

The department has made some progress in keeping up with the increase in households, vehicles and businesses, and the crashes, medical episodes and fires during the last two decades. They added a fire station and are relocating a station. They also added 31 full-time positions since then, and are adding another three next year.

But for every new full-time position, the department loses two part-time positions. That means for every 40 hours gained, they can lose up to 56 hours, because part-time employees can work 28 hours a week. However, most work 12 to 24.

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For example, the city council recently approved converting six part-time positions to three full-time positions next year, but in reality, that means the department will lose some firefighters.

The city added a fire station in 2006 off Graham Road, on the northeast side of the city, and moved firefighters from the other three stations to staff it.

The city is also in the process of moving Fire Station No. 93 about a mile west of where it’s currently located on Stop 18 Road to improve response times on the southwest side of the city, near State Road 135 and Whiteland Road. But when the city first started discussing that move, there were also plans to add a fifth fire station on the southeast side of the city, near the Interstate 65 and Worthsville Road interchange, around the same time.

But an additional fire station has been nixed, at least for now, and Chief Darin Hoggatt said he is worried that moving Station No. 93 will increase response times on the southeast side of the city, or put an even greater strain on already overworked crews, such as those at Station No. 91 downtown, whose coverage area will grow once the new station is built.

Understaffed, but making it work

Hoggatt has been pushing for more full-time firefighters since he took over as chief in 2016.

This year, he asked the city for nine additional full-time positions in 2019, but got three. Nine additional full-time positions is what the department needed in September to be considered adequately staffed by national standards, he said.

A minimum of four firefighters should be assigned to each rig, according to the National Fire Protection Agency, a standard the Greenwood Fire Department meets, barely. Twenty firefighters are assigned to every 12-hour shift — eight at the department’s main station downtown, and four at each of the other three stations, but some of those employees work part-time, which means they cannot, under any circumstances, work overtime.

NFPA recommends a minimum of 14 firefighters respond to fires at single-family homes and 27 firefighters respond to open-air strip malls and up to 3-story apartment buildings.

Fully staffed during a regular shift, the Greenwood fire department could only handle a single-family home on its own, without help from other agencies.

The Greenwood Fire Department has 110 firefighters, 36 of whom are full-time. Next year, that number will jump to 39, but the total number of firefighters will go down to 107. Together, they’re responsible for more than 57,000 residents in about 26 square miles, Hoggatt said.

By comparison, the Noblesville Fire Department, which covers slightly more ground but had 700 fewer emergency calls for service than Greenwood did last year, has 114 full-time firefighters, with at least 38 assigned to each shift.

Greenwood had more runs than Noblesville, Kokomo and Columbus, all of which are responsible for about the same number of residents and square miles, but have more full-time firefighters and significantly more assigned to each shift, than Greenwood.

None of those departments employ part-time firefighters, and all of them could handle fires at up to 3-story buildings and strip malls on any given shift without help from other agencies.

Greenwood has mutual aid agreements with several other agencies, including White River Township, Bargersville, New Whiteland and Indianapolis, meaning staff from those departments will help if a fire or emergency is big enough.

“One of the things that the fire service is known for and has a good reputation of is called mutual aid. We realize that on a (big) fire, we as one department don’t have the resources that it takes to really contain that fire,” Hoggatt said. “It takes a lot of people to do that. We don’t have it by ourselves.”

Ideally, four full-time firefighters would be assigned to every rig, during every shift, at every station, Hoggatt said.

The department sees an increase in calls almost every year, a sign of the rapidly growing population, he said.

As of Monday afternoon, the department had responded to about 6,300 calls this year. They responded to 6,400 last year, up from 5,900 in 2014. On average, about 20 percent of those runs are fires, while 80 percent are medical assists, according to fire department data.

The city’s growth hasn’t necessarily affected response times, which average 3 minutes and 53 seconds, but rather the number of back-to-back runs and the strain that puts on the personnel, Hoggatt said.

“That’s hard to put a thumb on. You can’t quantify that,” he said.

The highest response times are on the southwest side of the city. Crews often take 7 or 8 minutes to respond to fires or medical assists in that area, which is part of the reason the city is moving Station 93 further west, he said.

NFPA recommends departments respond to 90 percent of calls in four minutes.

Indiana fire departments are not legally required to follow NFPA’s guidelines, but are encouraged to.

A skilled trade

Converting part-time positions to full-time is a step in the right direction because it’s easier to find full-time employees, Hoggatt said. But the department isn’t gaining any manpower by making those conversions.

In 1998, the Greenwood Fire Department had five full-time firefighters. Most were part-time. But in today’s economy, it’s hard to find fully trained firefighters who are willing to work part-time, he said.

“As a rule, part-time people have (other) full-time jobs. It’s very difficult to get a part-time person who wants to work a (12-hour) shift,” Hoggatt said.

“It is getting more and more difficult with the good economy to get part-time people to come work for us when they’re making $12 an hour and they can’t work any overtime.”

Turnover is high. The department lost 46 part-time firefighters between March 2017 and September of this year to other central Indiana departments, he said.

“Once we get a part-time person in the door, we have a very robust training division and we do a huge amount of training on a weekly basis. They become extremely good candidates for full-time positions,” Hoggatt said.

Every Greenwood firefighter who is hired, including part-timers, must be a firefighter I/II, which requires at least six months of education, and an EMT basic, which requires another six months of education.

“I like to say firefighting is a skilled trade, not unlike being an electrician or a welder. You have to have schooling before you’re able to work. The part-time people also have to be skilled tradesman, and it’s difficult to find skilled people willing to work part-time in this economy. Either they get hired full-time at another fire department because they have the skills and meet the requirements already, or they can find a better paying job than $12 an hour,” Hoggatt said.

‘It all comes down to money’

City officials are working to improve retention. The city council recently approved a raise for part-time firefighters. Next year, they will make $14 an hour. Hoggatt has been pushing for this raise since he took office, he said.

Each new full-time firefighter costs the city $76,922, including benefits. The salary for an entry-level, full-time firefighter is about $50,000.

To cover the cost of the new full-time positions and equipment, as well as other increases in pay and expenses, the fire department’s budget will increase next year to about $7 million, up from $6.5 million this year, making up nearly a fifth of the city’s total budget.

“Our city is growing by leaps and bounds, but our public safety departments are struggling to keep up. Runs are increasing every year, and we need to meet that demand,” Greenwood Mayor Mark Myers has said.

Myers and his staff have made public safety a top priority in the city’s budget, and has asked repeatedly for changes at the county and state level, such as passing a food and beverage tax that would be directed to public safety budgets around the state.

The city plans to add three full-time firefighters every year through 2024, according to budget projections. But that means the department will likely eliminate 36 part-time positions between now and then.

“Obviously, it’s a constant give and take. I will say, though, (city staff) are very aggressive in trying to find new avenues of revenue for us,” Hoggatt said.

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Here is a look at Greenwood Fire Department’s numbers compared to other similarly sized departments in similarly sized cities in Central Indiana:

Greenwood Fire

57,000 residents;

26 square miles;

110 firefighters (36 full-time), with at least 20 assigned to each shift;

6,400 emergency calls in 2017

Columbus Fire

47,000 residents;

28 square miles;

95 firefighters (all full-time), with at least 31 assigned to each shift;

5,000 emergency calls in 2017

Noblesville Fire

63,000 residents;

33 square miles;

114 firefighters (all full-time), with at least 38 assigned to each shift;

5,700 emergency calls in 2017

Kokomo Fire

57,000 residents;

36 square miles;

86 firefighters (all-full-time), with at least 27 assigned to each shift;

5,400 emergency calls in 2017

Franklin Fire

25,000 residents;

13 square miles;

48 firefighters, with at least 15 assigned to each shift;

4,400 emergency calls in 2017