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Monday, January 14, 2013

The times they are a-changin' for the Tucson Fire Department

Along the same lines as the previous post, but closer to home, there are already changes in the air here in Arizona.  The Tucson Fire Department (TFD) will not be merging with its law enforcement brothers in the Tucson Police Department (TPD), but TFD is currently implementing changes that may permanently alter the structure of the department.

The alternative service delivery (ASD) program that TFD is implementing is not new, and this document shows that a version of ASD had already started in 2006.  However in 2006, ASD was going to be used in addition to existing suppression units like engine and ladder companies; in 2013, it is being used in place of those same units.  While there is no strict definition of ASD, TFD has begun to take some four-person suppression units out of service and reassigning those personnel to two-person vehicles called alpha trucks and rescue trucks.  The alpha trucks are staffed by two EMT's, and the rescue trucks are being staffed by a paramedic and an EMT.  TFD will also be putting into service a "day" suppression engine company that will work a 4-day/10-hour workweek, as a suppression unit that can cover areas of the city on an as-needed basis.

In 2006, alpha trucks were designed to take some of the less critical medical calls away from four-person suppression units to allow them to stay in service for fires and more serious medical calls.  This also saved wear and tear on the larger, more expensive engine and ladder trucks.  However, the implementation of ASD now is an acknowledgement of the new reality in Tucson.  First is the changing nature of TFD's service calls, which are now overwhelming medical, not fire-related.  This means resources must be directed to where they are needed, and splitting a single four-person vehicle into two two-person vehicles that can run twice as many medical calls is an obvious choice.

Second is the financial side of the situation.  In a still underwhelming economy, TFD will have to do more with the same or reduced budget.  According to PSPRS' 2012 Annual Report, TPD had 887 employees covered by PSPRS at the end of FY 2003, while TFD had 452.  At the end of FY 2012, TPD had 811, while TFD had 494.  In that nine-year period, Tucson's police have seen their force reduced by 76 personnel, while fire has gained 42.  It is certain that these numbers are noticed by those in Tucson's government, who probably want to know how TPD is able to do its job with fewer people and why TFD can not do the same.  ASD is one response to that question.

Debating the merits of ASD is not the point of this post, but one can not help but speculate as to where it will all lead.  TFD has had two-person paramedic trucks for decades, and these trucks have worked in conjunction with engine and ladder companies on more serious medical calls (known as advanced life support or ALS calls).  However, less critical calls (known as basic life support or BLS calls) have usually been handled by engine and ladder companies alone.  The creation of two-person units designed to run just BLS calls could be the start of a fundamental change as it transfers duties formerly done by suppression crews to other units.  This is where the speculation can really begin.

As suppression units have their BLS call loads reduced, will there be a need for fewer suppression units?  As more alpha and rescue trucks go into service, will EMS be spun off from TFD as either a separate or sub-department of TFD?  Will EMS personnel still need to be trained as firefighters first, or will a separate EMS department simply need qualified EMT's and paramedics? Could EMS services eventually be outsourced to a private company?

The slippery slope of speculation will eventually lead to questions like this last one, and it is tempting to see malevolent forces working toward this end.  However, Tucson, like San Jose, is confronting problems that will not be solved without making some hard choices, and in the end some things are going to change.  No one knows what the future holds, but it is bound to be very different than what we have all been used to.

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