Thursday, June 24, 2004

Target Fire Department reforms


Cincinnati officials can no longer put off upgrading the Fire Department to better respond to ambulance and fire calls, even as the city faces a potential deficit of $71 million by 2008.

But before spending millions on new equipment, City Council on Wednesday wisely decided to seek a consultant to advise on how to upgrade, and at the same time do some economizing. City Manager Valerie Lemmie estimates a consultant fee could be as high as $500,000. Such a cost would well be worth it if it helps control the expensive abuse of 911 calls by uninsured residents with non-life threatening complaints.

Mayor Charlie Luken supports an independent study and thinks the safety departments should not be exempt from budget cuts. He said the Fire Department was asked to come up with what it needed to do its job more efficiently, "and what we got back was just a list of add-ons." He hopes an independent consultant can make such politically difficult assessments of not only how many new ambulances are needed, but whether the city should also cut back on other units in the department that may no longer be needed.

The 200-page March report on Cincinnati Firefighter Oscar Armstrong's death in the line of duty on March 21, 2003, brought welcome candor to the debate. "Traditionally, the Cincinnati Fire Department doesn't embrace change very well," the investigators admitted.

Their panel included Fire Department officers, rank-and-file firefighters, Firefighter Union Local 48 representatives, city officials and outside safety experts. The Cincinnati Fire Department has been operating with only four training officers. At the time of the Armstrong death, no firefighters had been physically trained to recognize signs of an imminent flashover, which is what killed Armstrong. The panel found gross deficiencies in training, procedures and command at that fire. The Armstrong report called for $6.8 million in new spending, but did not address ambulance needs or ways to operate more efficiently.

An Enquirer report June 19 showed Cincinnati, with only 10 ambulances, lags behind other cities in the region. Columbus, with 34, maintains an ambulance-to-population ratio of one per 20,900. Cincinnati's is one per 31,128. But experts say the number of ambulances needs to be scaled to demographics and geography. An older population may require more ambulance runs to hospitals. Some cities save money by putting non-emergency cases in taxis and targeting repeat 911 callers for home visits to find out why they call 911 so often.

Councilman Pat DeWine introduced a motion Monday for the city to contract with outside auditors to review every city department on how they could operate more cost-efficiently. Similar audits of Hamilton County departments already are saving millions a year. The county's outside auditor guarantees savings at least equal to its fees. Cincinnati Fire Department would be an ideal candidate for such an independent audit.

Cost saving should never be the sole objective for safety departments, but the departments need to make every dollar count. Resources need to be realigned to fit this ever-changing city.

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