Lean Fire Department Leaves Thin Margin for Error

Redding firefighters at a fire on Bear Mountain and Oasis roads.

In the firefighting profession, time is everything.

The loss of a minute on a call could mean the difference between a home being damaged or completely destroyed. Time can translate to a person being rescued or mortally trapped.

So when Redding Fire Chief Kevin Kreitman points to a map of the city on his office wall and talks about response times, he seems significantly more pragmatic than he does political.

Fire Station 2 (at Placer Street and Buenaventura) closed on Jan. 9 as the Redding City Council voted to reduce nine firefighter positions and an assistant fire marshal position to close a $1.34-million gap in the fire department’s budget. The reductions were accomplished through retirements. A total of 12 positions have been eliminated since 2008.

Redding has 57 total firefighting personnel covering three shifts. That number doesn’t include three battalion chief positions and three positions dedicated to the airport.

Kreitman, who came from Albany, Ore., three years ago, was the fire chief for a department with the same staffing numbers as Redding. However, at 50,000 residents, Albany is significantly smaller than Redding, which has a population of 90,000.

Redding’s .62 firefighters per 1,000 residents puts it among the leanest departments in the country, according to statistics from the National Fire Protection Association.

For U.S. cities with populations of 50,000 to 99,999, the average staffing size is 1.3 firefighters per 1,000 people, the association’s numbers show. Redding is even lean compared with other western U.S. cities of similar size, whose average is .97 firefighters per 1,000 population.

“We’re as low as we can go,” Kreitman said of his staff total. “We’ve gone through the bone and we’re into the marrow.”

Redding Fire Chief Kevin Kreitman.

A fire chief talking about staff reductions and response times during a harsh economic season could instantly be viewed as political lobbying. The benefit packages of firefighters and police were central issues in the November city council race.

Measures A and B, nonbinding initiatives asking voters to approve the idea of all city workers paying the employee share of their pensions, were backed by council members Rick Bosetti and Patrick Jones. Both measures passed.

A News Cafe’s interview with Kreitman, however, focused on the Redding department’s current resources and challenges.

Five of the seven fire stations in Redding staff engines with two firefighters, as opposed to the more preferred crew size of three or four (which is common throughout the United States).

Regulations on structure fires require a minimum of five firefighters for many rescue scenarios, meaning engine crews from at least two stations must arrive before certain types of rescues can be initiated.

National Fire Protection Association guidelines recommend that at least 15 firefighters be on scene to safely and effectively handle a fire on a single-family home (about 2,000 square feet), Kreitman said. If more than one fire is going at the same time, it’s impossible for the Redding department to meet those guidelines without help from outside agencies.

“A second alarm empties all the stations,” Kreitman said.

Making matters more challenging is the discontinuation of the seasonal firefighter program, a victim of budget cuts.

A good example of the department’s resources getting stretched thin happened on March 7, when fire crews responded to multiple calls: a kitchen fire in a home, a manufactured home fire, a shooting that involved police and a garage/attic fire.

“I’m continually amazed at what we get done with the limited personnel and resources we have,” Kreitman said. “We’ve cut back so much (funding) from materials and supplies. Further reductions would really compromise our ability to provide services.”

Regarding the loss of Station 2, Kreitman said it was probably the best logistical decision based on how quickly crews from Station 1 (downtown, on Shasta Street) and Station 3 (on Westside Road) can get to west Redding. West Redding, however, is vulnerable to wildfires in the summer and the loss of Station 2 certainly cuts into overall response time.

“The key to being successful is how fast we can get there and attack a fire,” Kreitman said. “We always talk about a fire’s bell curve. We want to stay ahead of that curve before a structure becomes fully involved.”

Kreitman singled out the work his crews made on a four-unit townhouse fire on Dec. 7. One unit was fully involved in flames and attics of all the units had fire. The firefighters quickly ventilated the attic and saved three-quarters of the townhouse from major damage.

“The stop they made on that was incredible,” Kreitman said.

Though many people believe newer homes are safer, they actually present some bigger challenges and dangers when they catch fire. Newer homes use more synthetic materials and glues, and they can burn hotter. “Flashover,” the near-simultaneous ignition of all combustible material in an enclosed area, can happen much faster in newer homes.

“A lot of people don’t realize how little time you have to get out (of a house fire),” Kreitman said. “Every home needs an escape plan, especially for upstairs sleeping areas. Everyone should also check to make sure they have adequate smoke detectors in their homes.”

The Redding Fire Department responds to an average of 11,000 calls a year. The majority of those calls are medical or vehicle crash incidents. Firefighters are trained at an Emergency Medical Service (EMS) Basic Life Support response level.

Reduction of city firefighters will likely mean more reliance on outside agencies such as county departments, adjacent city departments and CalFire to help cover the gaps opened up by budget cuts. However, if neighboring departments respond to Redding emergencies, it makes the areas they’ve vacated more vulnerable.

“It certainly is a challenge for us,” Kreitman said. “We are an extra lean department right now.”

Jim Dyar is a news, arts and entertainment journalist for A News Cafe and also a songwriter and member of the Muletown String Band. He lives in Redding. You may e-mail Jim at jimd.anewscafe@gmail.com.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

Jim Dyar

is a journalist who focuses on arts, entertainment, music and the outdoors. He is a songwriter and leader of the Jim Dyar Band. He lives in Redding and can be reached at jimd.anewscafe@gmail.com

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