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January 18, 2011

Ind. agency to add a third ambulance crew on every shift

By Joseph Dits
South Bend Tribune

MISHAWAKA, Ind. — The firefighters union, paramedics and city officials all agree that the Mishawaka Fire Department must add a third ambulance crew on each 24-hour shift.

They agree that it would relieve stress on crews and meet the city's growing needs.

But how do you do that on a tight budget? The answer is still being negotiated.

A city proposal would scatter the two-person crews to three fire stations around the city, putting them closer to the emergency calls. They now run out of the same station at 333 E. Mishawaka Ave.

Officials have talked about starting the two-person crews by Feb. 1, but Fire Chief Dale Freeman said he isn't ready to commit to a date yet.

Many of the firefighters are certified to work on both fire engines and ambulances.

So, to stay within its budget, the city's administration would like to create the third ambulance crew by borrowing a person from each of the crews that go out with fire engines.

That would shrink the size of each engine crew from four to three people. The Mishawaka firefighters union is against that, arguing that it would increase the safety risks for both the engine crews and the homes and people they rescue.

Local union President James Elliott, who works on both fire engines and ambulances, points to a study last year by the National Institute of Standards and Technology. It found that four-person firefighting crews were able to complete 22 key firefighting and rescue tasks 25 percent faster than three-person crews.

The study timed fire crews on a test facility in Maryland. A four-person crew was able to gain access to and search the same burning building in 15 minutes and 48 seconds, compared with 21 minutes and 17 seconds for a three-person crew.

A four-person crew stretched out a hose 29 seconds faster than a three-person crew.

"A fire doubles in size every 30 seconds," Elliott said.

Freeman agrees that larger crews are safer and efficient. But he feels the department will be OK as long as enough crews are called to any given fire, especially since many of the staff can serve either medical or fire duties.

"The means of getting them there is not as important as getting them there," Freeman said.

Also, Elliott contends that the three-person engine crews would interfere with the federal "two in, two out" safety rule, where two firefighters must work inside a burning building with two outside. So, a three-person crew responding to a fire would have to wait for a second fire crew to arrive - sometimes waiting two to three minutes, give or take — before sending two firefighters inside, he said.

But Freeman said the first crew often uses that lag time to set up, stretch out their hoses and clamp on their masks — and by then, the second unit usually arrives.

Ultimately, the union feels that the city will need to hire more staff.

Top city officials, including Mayor Dave Wood, say the city can't afford more than the two extra crew members that the Fire Department will hire in 2011.

Freeman said the city would need those two plus six more hires to avoid shrinking the engine crews. Each new hire costs roughly $75,000 in wages and benefits, Freeman estimated.

He hopes to see even more hires in the 2012 and 2013 city budgets if finances, the mayor and the city council allow.

The city expects the ambulances to generate more revenue because 1) the city raised its ambulance rates as of Jan. 1, and 2) the third crew will increase the number of ambulance runs for which it can bill.

Freeman said that could bring in enough revenue to support more hires. But he's leery of predicting how much until the next several months play out.

Copyright 2011 South Bend Tribune Corporation

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