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Fire District plans early-alert system

Eager to cut emergency response times even further, Fire District’s 7’s Chief Mike Brown has proposed a pre-alert system that would get fire personnel out the door up to 30 seconds faster.

Although 30 seconds may not sound like a lot, in a business where speed matters and response times are calculated in minutes, 30 seconds can mean the difference between a healthy recovery and permanent injury, Brown pointed out.

Currently, 911 dispatchers take all the relevant information from callers, then relay it to responding fire stations. The firefighters then don whatever equipment they need and head for their rigs.

The whole process is supposed to take two minutes — 60 seconds for the 911 call and 60 seconds to dress and get out the door, day or night. To shave 30 seconds, or a quarter of the time, off that amount, Brown proposes “toning out” the firefighters as soon as dispatch confirms the call is a real emergency and gets an address from the caller. The principal purpose is to get medical personnel on-scene even faster to treat life-threatening conditions. But Brown said the system could help with all types of calls.

“They way a fire progresses, 30 seconds can be huge,” he said.

Dave Magnenat, CenCom’s deputy director, said his staff has done some preliminary research on Brown’s idea and thinks it can be done.

The system would likely rely on a double-tone system. The first tone would dispatch a single, basic-response unit and the second would add whatever extra personnel were needed.

A medical call, for instance, would get one aid unit with two EMTs and a fire call would get a single fire engine.

Although serious medical calls would require a paramedic as well and working fires could potentially require a half-dozen or more additional units, Magnenat said a single unit can do plenty while waiting for reinforcements.

“The EMTs can do an awful lot stabilizing the patient,” he said, adding, “They’re going to go no matter what.”

The biggest obstacle to implementing Brown’s proposal, which is also backed by Central Kitsap Fire and Rescue, is money. CenCom currently has one fire dispatch position — the same number it had when it entered service in 1976.

Working a two-tone system would require a second position and approximately five additional people to staff it 18 hours a day. Magnenat said he was still researching what adding the position would cost, but pointed out it would be even more costly to aim for 24-hour-a-day coverage.

“Eighteen hours a day is a way to get started, to get the busiest times of the day and the busiest days of the week covered,” he said.

CenCom does have the space and computer resources needed to support a second dispatcher, even in its current facility. From a personal standpoint, Magnenat said, a second fire dispatcher would improve things a lot at CenCom by reducing the load on the current dispatch position.

“They’re overwhelmed,” he said.

Magnenat hopes to get the majority of the research done by May 3, when he is scheduled to present the project proposal to the Kitsap fire chiefs. The meeting will be crucial, he said, because many fire departments haven’t even heard of the idea and will need to decide whether the earlier alert will work for them.

Every fire district has its own way of doing things, Magnenat pointed out. Some districts, like Fire District 7, ask for CenCom to only dispatch the minimum number of units needed. Others, like Bainbridge Island, want the whole department notified no matter where the emergency takes place.

“Ultimately, this is something we’re working with fire districts on,” Magnenat said. It’s not something we’re pushing. It’s an idea much more than it is a project at this point.”

Although Fire DIstrict 7’s commissioners have expressed support for the idea, some are still concerned the new system will take a toll on personnel. Fire Commissioner Rick Metzger said he didn’t want to use the system if it kept firefighters keyed up around the clock, constantly on alert regardless of whether or not their services were needed.

He said any incremental reduction in response time was worthless if the responders were not in top form.

“If our folks are showing up 30 seconds, 90 seconds earlier, but they aren’t mentally ready because we’ve burned them out, we haven’t gained anything,” Metzger said.

Magnenat said the question of who gets toned when is something each fire district would have to decide for themselves. He emphasized the project is still in its very early stages and would likely undergo a lot of changes before it is implemented, if that day ever comes.

“There’s great flexibility there so far as CenCom is concerned,” Magnenat said.

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