North Shore Fire Department cuts equipment, staff in 2013 budget

Stabilization fund to address increasing retirement liability

Sept. 26, 2012

The North Shore Fire Department will take one ambulance and one fire engine out of service in the coming year, as well as reduce its daily nonadministrative staffing level from 27/26 to 25/24, as part of a 2013 budget adopted by its board of directors Monday.

Fire Chief Robert Whitaker said the fire engine would come out of NSFD's Glendale station, though a combination fire engine and ladder truck would remain there, and staff members are working out where to cut the ambulance.

The adopted $13.9 million budget means an overall increase in contribution of 1.9 percent for member communities, and an increase of 1.4 percent in the overall NSFD budget from 2012.

Whitaker told the board that by making the reduction in staff and equipment, response times are likely to increase in the scenarios where the department is dealing with multiple calls and needs to draw resources from stations throughout the area.

"(The reduction) limits the crew we have to move around," he said.

As part of the adopted budget, NSFD will begin to contribute $300,000 annually to a "stabilization fund" meant to help absorb the current and future liabilities of post-employment benefits, presently estimated at more than $22 million.

"We're trying to look at all the different ways to manage the unfunded issue now," NSFD Finance Director Lynn Burton said, "before it becomes overwhelming."

Response times and service

Whitaker told the NSFD finance committee that, when responding to fire and emergency medical service calls, he and the department aim to get first responders to the scene within six minutes. According to the American Heart Association, brain tissue begins to die within 4-6 minutes without oxygen, and survival rates are higher the sooner responders administer CPR and defibrillation. NSFD also uses a six minute standard for fire response, said Whitaker, because fire companies are more likely to make rescues the sooner they arrive on scene, and can attempt to quell fires before they reach the "flashover" point at which they become uncontrollable - typically eight minutes after the fire begins to burn freely.

However, due to a state-mandate, in a situation where there is no confirmed life hazard, a firefighter can't enter a burning building until there are five responders on scene. A distribution of resources around the North Shore, especially at times when NSFD is reacting to multiple calls for service, may affect the time it takes for enough responders to arrive and be able to enter.

"When you start reducing the concentration of resources, when we pull back what we have in an area, that affects what it takes to get the sufficient number of resources on the scene to perform a function," Whitaker said, "whether that's firefighting or responding to a medical emergency."

In 2011, NSFD's average response time for EMS calls was four minutes and 45 seconds, five minutes and 10 seconds for fire calls, and approximately 77 percent of calls had a response time at six minutes or less.

Whitaker said that the department will look to become accredited by the Center for Public Safety Excellence in the 2013 budget year. As part of the accreditation process, NSFD will survey the public on acceptable levels of service and response times, and staff accordingly.

Benefit liability looming

Beginning in 2013, NSFD will put $300,000 annually into a stabilization fund meant to help absorb the future costs of post-employment benefits, composed of sick leave payouts, health insurance, and disability for retirees.

The fire department will pay benefits for 33 retirees in 2013 at a cost of approximately $513,000. By 2020, Burton said, NSFD expects to provide benefits for 40 retirees at an approximate cost of $1.1 million, assuming a 5 percent annual increase in premium costs. In order to minimize the impact of fluctuations in benefit payouts, NSFD will use 2013 post-employment benefit costs as a baseline, with the added $300,000 going to the stabilization fund annually.

NSFD will use that base cost plus the balance of the stabilization fund to pay for the benefit cost and mitigate increases over time, though according to Burton's projections, the fund will go into the red in 2020.

She said the stabilization fund is a good way for the department to keep its post-employment costs relatively fixed over time while modifications aimed at reducing the overall liability are considered and negotiated over the years.

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