Grand Jury Report on Fire Department EMS in Orange County

The recently published document by the Orange County grand jury regarding the deployment and response of resources by Orange County fire departments to emergency medical calls for service is both stunning, and concerning in the inaccuracies, opinions, and falsehoods presented as fact. The determinations made appear to be based on these failures or research, and lead to what may be a pre-ordained belief, without factual support. Because this document rehashes a 2012 effort of a similar matter, I am disturbed by the need for another review that fails to build on the earlier discussion.

Fundamentally, the local fire department deploys resources designed to respond to and to mitigate the unwanted effects of the environment on life, property, and the environment itself. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying that the environment is “everything but me,” referring to himself at the time. Except for specifically law enforcement related matters, unrelated to unwanted fire, this defines the responsibility of fire department emergency response. The two most time sensitive, or emergency responses, include fire suppression and emergency medical/rescue code-three (with lights and siren) response. The fire service is truly a multi-mission operation that serves to address many of the emergency needs of the community. The capability of the local fire department is only limited to the funding and leadership provided by the governing agency decisionmakers.

To fully understand the importance of emergency response it is necessary to carefully consider the concept of time, and the influence of time on the growth of uncontrolled fire and patients in extreme medical conditions i.e., coronary, stroke, blood loss et al. In all these situations the outcome is directly related to timely intervention. The sooner that trained personnel, operating efficiently, arrive at the scene and begin fire suppression or medical treatment the more likely that a desired outcome is probable. There are three components to the total response time of a fire department: call processing time, turnout time, and travel time. The only component that cannot be manipulated to a great extent is travel time as rescue personnel can only travel so fast through the city streets to arrive at the scene of an emergency.

The distribution of fire stations across the land mass of a city like Newport Beach serves to place fire department rescue personnel near potential fires or medical emergencies under static conditions. During times of fire department system stress due to uncontrolled fire i.e., Emerald Bay and Coastal Fire recently, in Orange County and specifically Newport Beach, a rapid and integrated system is employed to shift similar resourced into areas of reduced coverage. This was recently demonstrated and reported to the City Council in a timely fashion by the fire chief regarding the Coastal Fire in Laguna Hills. Rapid intervention serves the people you, and your fire department serve.

Of the two identified time sensitive functions of the fire department, fire suppression and medical/rescue, resource deployment should be considered for the need based on a timely response to the incident, or potential incident. Because the building stock of a community changes slowly over time, the deployment of firefighting resources and staffing at the local firehouse responsible for initial fire suppression efforts should be based on factors related to risk, occupancy type, and travel time to all areas of initial responsibility, or first due for the resources staffed at that firehouse. Earlier intervention of fire should equate a smaller fire that is extinguished faster, requiring fewer total resources from neighboring firehouses. This concept should result in a more efficient operation that has fewer fire stations assigned to a fire and committed to a fire outside the first due area.

Because the community will need the firehouses staffed for fire suppression needs, the use of these same firefighting personnel for emergency medical/rescue response was seen as a wise use of taxpayer funds. The report fails to understand the wisdom of this important concept, and in fact fails to consider this altogether. Fire apparatus, fully equipped to perform all the multi-mission functions, and available 24/7 unless committed to a prior emergency is the gold standard of the business. The idea presented to staff a two-person medic unit in place of a “second” engine at the Laguna Woods firehouse fails to consider the multi-mission functions of a fire station that protects a large hospital, a very busy complex of freeways, and housing with mature residents who will need additional support under emergency circumstances. That Laguna Woods firehouse is staffed in that fashion because it is the busiest firehouse in a densely developed county of over 3 million residents. Drawing broad conclusions based on a limited, and often false understanding, has resulted in a bad recommendation.

I found it unusual that Newport Beach in particular, with a somewhat unique deployment of resources only matched by the City of Orange, was not mentioned in text of this report. This was especially noteworthy as the thesis of the report was focused on resource deployment, city operated ambulance services, and the Orange County Fire Authority (OCFA). The limited investment by the OC grand jury into the research on this important subject only serves to support the idea that the effort was biased from the start and will provide ample information for those intent on diminishing the value of a future OC grand jury report on a similar subject.

Without Warning



During the course of this past year the City of Newport Beach has taken three significant steps that serve to increase the risk to the residents and visitors of the communities that make up this city.

Initially, the urban search and rescue squad (US&R) was removed from service for undisclosed reasons. Following this action, the fire prevention division of the fire department was removed from the daily oversight of fire service professionals and placed in the community development department. Finally, the daily staffing of firefighters was reduced by three on the Balboa Peninsula, an area of the city that often experiences the lion’s share of public safety calls for service due to its proximity to the beach, alcohol serving establishments, and the nature of high density residential development.

Each of these actions has had a specific impact on the ability of the Newport Beach Fire Department to meet the service needs of the community. Taken in total, the combined impact of all three actions will potentially lead to negative and measurable influences in terms of response time and emergency incident capability, as well as long term impacts on the fire resistive nature and emergency response access to new building development.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) develops standards for issues related to community fire protection. These standards are consensus based by public and private entities and can be supported by data developed by recognized organizations. Several of these standards speak directly to the changes made in Newport Beach, and serve in a predictive nature to the influences such changes may have on the capability of the local fire and emergency defensive framework.

NFPA standard 1710 establishes the number of career firefighters committed to a fire company, i.e., engine, truck or other special service resource based on need. Often there are many issues that come into play when making this determination such as local policy, available funding, and Federal law relating to respiratory protection. Information on firefighter fire ground performance can be found in a study published by the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST). Each of these publications speak to the benefit of having a minimum number of firefighters (staffing) on engine and truck companies to perform task level work in a timely fashion when operating at the scene of an emergency. When the City of Newport Beach reduced its daily staffing on the Balboa Peninsula, a first-due reporting district that includes many fire service challenges, such as a large regional hospital complex, numerous residential high rise occupancies, significant inland and boating waterways and a high traffic volume state arterial highway. All of these developments and infrastructure are emergency service challenges that correlate to the need for enhanced staffing on local fire department emergency service resources.

The removal of the fire prevention function from the stewardship of the chief of the fire department is specifically discouraged in an NFPA standard. Further, this was identified as a contributing factor noted in an independent investigation into the death of nine firefighters at the Super Sofa Furniture Store Fire in Charleston, South Carolina in 2007.

There has been no stated reason for these changes. Some have speculated that it is related to pension reform and the need to control the cost of providing service to the community. However, this idea is in contrast with the reality that during the same budget year the Newport Beach police department added six new employee positions. Another challenge to this theory is that the largest share of tax revenue in Newport Beach, property tax, has risen each year. This is especially true in the community of Newport Coast where property owners are subject to a greater percentage of taxation on assessed valuation, some of this specifically designated for fire protection service.

If there is a need to make these changes then it seems proper for those who control the levers of power to publish the decision and to provide context to the reasoning. The previous apparatus staffing levels and critical community resources survived the depths of the Great recession, so it appears that there other reasons for these changes than financial resources. Why punish the residents with a service reduction when economic times are on the upswing?

The outcome of these changes will be an increase in risk, illustrated by an increase in response time of specialized US&R resources from outside fire service jurisdictions based on availability. Additionally, the synergistic effect of staffing reductions and the decommissioning of the US&R squad will result in longer time-to-critical task completion at the scene of a fire, medical, or entanglement emergency. This additional time before a fire is suppressed, or a victim is rescued will be realized by a greater loss of property, as well as increased public and firefighter injury. While this is difficult to dispute, it can be challenging to measure.

One tenant of the fire service is that time is of the essence, and any action that serves to increase response time and resource capability should be carefully considered in an open and transparent fashion. This tenant is no less important in a City that prides itself on local government transparency.










Fire Station Location and Travel Times