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FACTS meeting draws ideas from residents about staffing

A recent public forum focusing on the Mehlville Fire Protection District's staffing brought forth several recommendations to district officials, including cross-training firefighters and paramedics and increasing staffing to reduce overtime.

The third meeting of the district's Fire District Advisory Committee for Tomorrow's Emergency Services, or FACTS, took place last week at St. Simon the Apostle Catholic Church in Green Park.

FACTS is designed to involve residents in developing recommendations that will provide fire and emergency medical solutions to meet future needs for the entire community. The group will meet two to three times a month until August to study key issues, define the district's needs and reach consensus on potential solutions.

At the end of the process, participants will present recommendations to the Board of Directors — Chairman Tom O'Driscoll, Treasurer Dan Ottoline Sr. and Secretary David Gralike — for consideration.

At the June 30 meeting, Deputy Chief Steve Mossotti presented information to about 75 residents regarding the Mehlville Fire Protection District's 133 employees.

Mossotti explained the district's application and hiring process, work schedule, training, staffing levels, training, response standards and increased calls.

After his presentation, residents participated in a group activity in which they were asked about staffing at "minimum manning'' levels and overtime to keep the fifth ambulance and rescue squad in service, and they were asked about training for firefighters and paramedics.

One issue that created some discussion was cross-training firefighters and paramedics so that one can perform both types of work.

One resident who presented thoughts from members of his table was Jason Klump. He suggested Mehlville follow the national trend of cross-training.

"... I think that our consensus was that by starting at this point forward, if you cross-train, meaning a basic requirement of having a paramedic come in and the paramedic can ride a truck, then you have an additional shift or swing worker — you can kind of flop around between the district. Like I said, it may cut down on some of the overtime hours. It may just provide additional benefit to the district in general,'' he said.

"I keep getting caught up in this whole 80 percent of the calls ran last year were EMS-related, yet the number of medics vs. the number of firefighters is so out of whack that if the first respondent was a firefighter and there's no ALS (Advanced Life Support) equipment on the truck and you're talking about a three-quarter-minute delay, that means life and death in many situations. So I think that was the consensus of the table — we need to look into new direction. I think the focus of this meeting was where are we going to be years from now, and I think we need to get into a national trend with Mehlville being one of the leading paid districts, we need to be a trend-setter, not a follower,'' Klump added.

Mossotti had presented information that the district's 2000 Memorandum of Understanding between the union, Local 1889 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, and the administration established minimum staffing levels, including three firefighters for engine companies, three firefighters for the rescue squad, and two paramedics on ambulance companies at all times.

"Unfortunately, due to the budget constraints, there is a difference between what we were operating at in 2002 and what we are currently operating at,'' Mossotti said.

In 2002, the district's seven engine companies had three firefighters each, its one rescue squad had three firefighters, and there were six "swing personnel'' to fill in for vacations and illnesses for a total of 90 firefighters. The district's five ambulances had two paramedics each, and there were two "swing personnel'' to fill in for vacations and illnesses for a total of 36 paramedics.

Currently, the district's seven engine companies have three firefighters, its one rescue squad now has only two firefighters, and the district is down to four "swing personnel'' to fill in for vacations for a total of 81 firefighters. On the EMS side, current staffing levels on five ambulances are still at two paramedics, but there is only one "swing personnel'' to fill in for vacations for a total of 33 paramedics.

"What does that mean? Because we don't have the additional people to swing in and fill in for the illnesses and injuries, we are forced to utilize those two firefighters who are on that squad as fill-ins to keep our staffing levels up on the engine companies. So as a result, 50 percent of the year we do not have staffing on that squad,'' Mossotti said. "The same thing has happened on the EMS side ... In order to eliminate or prevent having to pay out overtime to keep the trucks up, we are utilizing the two paramedics that are on that fifth ambulance to fill in for illnesses and injuries that have taken place, which again results in the fifth ambulance not being staffed about 60 percent of the time.''

Klump also asked whether cross-training would create additional costs for the district.

Mossotti answered that there would be no additional costs if the cross-training was a requirement for individuals coming into the district, but it may reduce the number of available personnel who are qualified to work in the district.

During the presentation, Mossotti also explained that the National Fire Protection Association sets standards for the fire service, including the response criteria for both fire and EMS calls.

For a first-alarm fire, the standards specify that 15 people should respond, and Mehlville responds with 16 people, plus two additional paramedics because one ambulance is also dispatched. The first arriving pumper is supposed to respond in four minutes, while Mehlville's responds in three. The entire first alarm response — the four pumpers and one rescue squad — should respond within eight minutes for a structure fire, Mossotti said.

"As I said before, our rescue squad is not staffed half the time, so how can we send it? The crew next door jumps between the pumper and the squad. If we need the rescue squad, they would take the squad. In this case, we would normally send four pumpers plus the squad for a total of five trucks. If that squad is not available, we would then fill in with another truck from another engine house or another department to get that fifth truck,'' Mossotti said.

That's where the response time can increase when the trucks must come from further engine houses. He said, "On average, when the fifth ambulance is not in service, is not being staffed, there is about a three-quarter-minute additional response time for the ambulance getting to their calls because basically it's coming from a different place.''

The district also recently eliminated the training officer position when the past training officer retired, Mossotti said.

Kathy Waser presented thoughts from the residents at her table that personnel should be restored to 2002 levels. She added that ongoing training must be constant, not just in-house, but also out-of-house training from extra-qualified people so that the employees can learn even more. She also suggested a physical fitness program for the district's employees. "We would like to have a training officer rehired because not only can he teach, but he can also have the expertise to bring in teachers,'' Waser said.

Linda Poor added, "Although we did feel that training is very important ... we felt that some of this training should be done on their own, at their own expense. A lot of other professions in the district — people are required to do a certain amount of training and they are forced to do that at their own expense as part of their job.''

She also asked why firefighters and paramedics were not cross-trained.

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