Guest column: Firefighters disagree with station’s weeklong closure
August 28, 2012
South Lake Tahoe Fire Station No. 2 is closed from 8 a.m. Monday, Aug. 27 through 5 p.m. Friday, Aug. 31. Chief Brian Uhler’s decision to close the station was discussed at length with the South Lake Tahoe Firefighters Association prior to implementation. To understand how this decision came about requires a brief history of fire department operations over the last 12 months.
Due to severe revenue constraints last year, the fire department – along with every other group in the city – saw some large cuts in our budget. The fire department upper management was eliminated, which meant we lost four battalion chiefs and the fire chief. Police Chief Brian Uhler then took over as the interim fire chief. This allowed the Engine Companies to stay intact and we were able to (mostly) maintain the same level of service delivery to the community. However, without battalion chiefs on duty, we lost a major safety component at large incidents. There was also an aggregate reduction in productivity because the Station 3 captain took over the duties of the battalion chief, essentially wearing two hats. Two large workloads handled by one person meant many pieces fell through the cracks on a daily basis. The safety component was the most alarming with this new operational design. It should also be noted that there are no professional fire departments attempting a management structure like this one. Without a designated battalion chief, we have no one who can effectively arrive on scene and handle “Command and Control” of the scene. Without one person directing the actions of many resources, we have been setting ourselves up for a tragedy. Chief Uhler has been hearing these concerns, sometimes very loudly, from our members for the last eight to 10 months. The chief has been trying to find a solution to these problems while at the same time being advised by the city that not only is there no money to spend but that that we might even see more cuts.
The closure of station No. 2 (Al Tahoe Fire Station) does not realize any cost savings. Chief Uhler’s intent is to reassign the two personnel from station 2 to stations 1 and 3. (Station 1 is located at Pioneer Trail and Ski Run Boulevard Station 3 is located near the “Y.”) By doing this, the captain/shift commander at Station 3 can get off the engine and effectively work as the battalion chief. The captain from Station 2 then gets reassigned to Engine 3 and the engineer from Station 2 gets reassigned to engine 1. We will still have 10 personnel on duty every day, but there will be no one at Station 2. Though this solves one set of problems, it creates a new set of problems.
Through two separate studies from outside agencies, the placement of the three fire stations in South Lake Tahoe has been dubbed “optimum” due to the linear layout of the city. Removing Station 2 creates an obvious problem for resource management. If we respond for a CPR call or a traffic collision or even a small fire, we need a minimum of two engines and a medic unit (six people). As soon as that happens, there are no more resources available to respond in the city. Normally we are able to handle nearly all of the emergencies in the city without relying on Tahoe Douglas or Lake Valley to respond by way of our mutual aid agreements. With this new design, we will need their assistance much more often than we used to. In other words, our agreement won’t be “mutual” anymore if we call for them 10 times for every time they call for us. The most concerning piece is how this change will affect response times to calls in the city. Station 2 currently protects the areas from Safeway at Johnson Boulevard and Highway 50 to Sierra Blvd and Highway 50. For the homes and businesses in the Al Tahoe area and Sierra Tract neighborhoods, there will be a delay waiting for an engine to respond from either end of town.
Though we understand this will solve the problems related to command and control, we are not in favor of closing Station 2. With two-person engine companies, no full-time battalion chiefs and having the police chief split his time between the police department and the fire department, we are already far below any standards for fire protection. Closing Station 2 will ultimately lower the service delivery of fire and EMS protection in the city.
– Kenin Fairley is the president of the South Lake Tahoe Firefighters Association.