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Should the Apopka Fire Department transition to 3-person engines?

Posted

Apopka Budget 2021

By Mickenzie Hannon, Interning Correspondent with The Apopka Voice

The first engine arrives, and two firefighters immediately jump off the fire truck and into action. One firefighter begins staffing the truck and pumping it to release water. The other pulls out the hoses, sets them up, grabs all the necessary tools, communicates through the radio, completes a 360-degree assessment of the building, and finalizes any other essential and routine procedures. Emergency personnel arrive at the scene and continue with safety procedures, but two additional personnel that were supposed to be there to help never arrive.

According to Alex Klepper, not even a full day passed after the July 19th City Budget Workshop before the Apopka Fire Department experienced another instance where a three-person engine would have been more efficient than the established two-person engine model. The above situation is an occurrence where two personnel who are responsible for operating the squad vehicle were, instead, transporting on another ambulance from another scene and were unavailable to assist with the structure fire call on July 20th.

The squad vehicle, which is similar to a pick-up truck and can easily manage through traffic, was out of service on four separate occasions for over five hours that day, ultimately leading to the severe staffing issues prevalent within the AFD.

“It wasn’t a unique day,” Klepper said.

Klepper is an engineer paramedic on the AFD, and the Secretary and Public Information Officer for the newly-formed union (IAFF Local 5293). He explained how crucial switching to a three-person engine model is so that the overall workload and responsibilities for the two firefighters are decreased.

“Increasing our staffing to three per engine allows us to keep units in service that currently become unavailable when additional personnel are needed for critical medical transports, and will also allow us to have a safer and more effective fire and motor vehicle crash response. We have got to be the only city with only two people on a firetruck. You never see that. It is a lot to handle with two people, and it’s not very efficient.”

The July 19th Apopka City Budget Workshop partially addressed the needs of the AFD and began with a presentation led by Apopka Fire Chief Sean Wylam. Throughout the workshop, the Apopka City Council discussed the staffing issues.

“It is very clear what the Department needs and wants, and I thought that was communicated clearly, however, in light of that, the presentation came up short, possibly putting us another year behind,” Klepper said. He also expressed his disappointment at having staff and training items he finds necessary included in a wish list and not in the budget. “Those are not things to wish for. Those are necessities."

The most important necessity to Klepper is staffing. He says the per capita numbers addressed and used during the Workshop account for only four Fire Department stations, not six, which is currently the total number of operating stations in Apopka. Klepper expressed frustration over the lack of staffing increases despite city growth.

“We’ve stretched everybody out over six stations—because we decided we need six stations for the coverage of the city—but we’re not then adding the staffing to make up for that,” Klepper explained.

According to Klepper, some AFD stations are severely understaffed, units are out of service and trucks are often unused.

“If you drive by a station and see a fire truck sitting there, you would just presume there is a person there… In reality, this is not the case.”

Klepper also shared his fear of residents arriving at a vacant station with an emergent situation and not receiving immediate attention. To his knowledge, this situation has fortunately not yet occurred.

“The city is growing, and the Department just needs to catch up with it. We are not running a very effective model right now,” Klepper said.

The AFD currently operates on a two-person engine model, meaning that only two personnel manage each engine. According to Wylam, “For our minimum staffing, engines have two, ambulances have two, and squads have two.”

Two people show up to a medical call. According to Klepper, there are plans to change to a dual response model where a fire truck and ambulance—four personnel total—will respond to a medical call.

Currently, according to Klepper, a standard fire call for a basic structure fire requires 15 personnel, usually including two fire engines, two ambulances, a tower truck, a fire chief, and a squad vehicle reporting at the scene. Of the two ambulances that appear on the scene, one ambulance is strictly ambulance services, while the other serves the firefighter team and changes into appropriate firefighter gear.

Apopka Commissioner Kyle Becker shifted the Budget Workshop discussion to focus on the potential of increasing engine staffing from two to three firefighters. In cities like Winter Park, there are three personnel assigned to an engine, two assigned to an ambulance, and four assigned to other apparatus.

In Apopka, if there is a structure fire, one member of the ambulance crew, if available, will ride in an engine with two other firefighters. Switching to a three-man engine model would implement a permanent change to where three personnel are assigned to each engine, maximizing efficiency and overall performance.

Wylam estimated that adding a third person to each engine and tower truck, which would increase staff by 45 firefighters, would cost $2.5 million in salaries. Yet, he concentrated on the eventual operating model change in the Department, not an immediate change.

Becker questioned Wylam’s stance, as he considered the three-man engine model an achievable change to allow for increased efficiency.

“Dollars don’t scare me,” Becker said. “What we should be thinking about is not how much it costs, but what’s the minimum standard that we should have as a department to service our employees and the residents.” He continued, “If we’re saying we would have a better operating model for the fire department to save lives or save department personnel by going to a three-person engine staffing, we’ve got the money to be able to do that.”

Klepper thought the discussion between Wylam and the Apopka City Council was a little bizarre.

“I don’t think I have ever seen a board member try to squeeze out of somebody to ask for more. Usually, it’s the other way around.”

Nevertheless, Klepper found the commissioners’ responses encouraging.

“I was happy to see at least our city commissioners seemed to notice some of the shortfalls and spoke up for the firefighters.”

Klepper mentioned the SAFER Grant, which some fire departments utilize to alleviate staffing issues. However, the City Council did not determine or finalize a plan to alleviate staffing issues within the AFD during the Workshop.

While Wylam did ask for three additional firefighter staff positions and three district chief positions, staffing is still a serious and immediate concern for the AFD, in Klepper's assessment.

The City Council is scheduled to finalize the FY2022 Budget in September, and Klepper is hoping staffing issues will be alleviated.

“We keep hearing there’s a plan five or ten years from now, but we are in a tight spot today… It’s more of a high-pressure and emergent situation than it’s being treated,” he said.

But Becker is open to increasing the AFD budget much sooner to add staff and implement the three-person teams on engines and towers.

“When factoring in concerns from our existing department personnel, reviewing National Fire Protection Association recommendations, and hearing Chief Wylam’s response to my questions regarding apparatus staffing levels during the budget workshop, I absolutely think we should be on a glide path to ensure our Engines and Towers are responding to calls with a 3-personnel minimum. I realize there is a cost in doing so, and staff should provide those estimates to which we could plan over a budget year or more. The safety of not only our residents, but our first responding personnel is paramount, and responsible investment of our taxpayer dollars."

Editor's Note: The Apopka Voice emailed all of the Apopka City Council members and Apopka Fire Chief Sean Wylam at their apopka.net addresses for their response to the article.

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