And that’s exactly why the Fire Department is beginning an estimated yearlong process of launching a comprehensive strategic plan that will encompass a new building, increased staffing, technology-advanced equipment and gear, and multipurpose community service.
“We’re not really a fire department anymore, we’re an all-hazards response agency,” Chief Heather Burford said. “You name the hazard and we’re responding to it — whether it’s an EMS situation, a fire situation, a public service situation, a hazmat call, or a technical rescue.”
“As we begin to talk about strategic planning, we’re going to be looking at everything the department does now and will be doing in the future,” said Chief Burford.
“The services we’ll likely be delivering, the staffing levels needed to meet the service need, the infrastructure of the department — the building, the apparatus, the vehicles, all the components that allow us to do our job.
“And then there will have to be a customer service component built in there somewhere, meaning, what are the expectations of our residents?”
The desire to develop a long-term departmental outlook came up at a Fire Commission meeting on Sept. 10, where town officials discussed how the town’s growth would affect emergency response capabilities.
“The department does a great job with its five-year projections on capital items, such as engines and ambulances, but what we realized is that there isn’t a long-term outlook of the entire department and that we needed to have a proactive discussion about the future structure of the Ridgefield Fire Department and start putting it on our radar,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi.
“There are a lot of components that we have to consider in this process, one of which is the town’s population and its expected 1% growth rate and the number of people right now on the bubble of becoming seniors.”
Mr. Marconi added that another factor is the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, which will have an impact on hospitals and therefore patient care at a more local level.
Perhaps the greatest element triggering this strategic planning process is the shift in the Fire Department’s identity over time, evolving from an organization solely responsible for fighting fire toward an agency that handles many kinds of emergencies, including EMS, hazmats, rescues, and public service calls.
Chief Burford admits that the department has seen a decline in the number of structural fires in town.
“Some hard work done around town — better building codes in place, a better inspection program through our fire marshal’s office — has made this positive situation possible,” she said.
However, there is still a need — a growing need, in fact — for the Fire Department.
With 77 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964, the big driver behind the department’s strategic planning is a growing elderly population that has shown a preference toward “aging in place.”
“More and more people don’t want to go to nursing homes for the ends of their lives, and more and more services are being provided that allow them to age in their homes for as long as possible,” Chief Burford said. “I believe that this is a wonderful trend, but it definitely has a tremendous impact on us already and that will only continue.”
Chief Burford said that the new elderly population will have “higher demands and higher expectations” of the system, which will compound with an increased volume in EMS calls stemming from Affordable Care Act regulations that will create a need for a department that focuses on patient care as much as it mitigates fires, hazards and other dangerous situations.
“Hospitals are being told that patients being readmitted with the same chief complaint in a 30-day period, then the hospital will not be able to seek the reimbursement for that second visit,” she explained. “This means that hospitals are going to make sure that once released, a patient will have all the care planning and services in place so that they don’t return in that 30-day window.
“The idea is to get that person really, really healthy and get them back in their homes with the support they need; otherwise, if they come back with the same chief complaint, then the hospitals aren’t going to get paid, so they are going to encourage every patient has what they need at an EMS response level.”
“We know enough to be paying attention to the potential growth areas,” she said.
Before the department can look ahead to the future, it will study its past.
History of industry
“The first piece of strategic planning is taking a look at how we got to this point, where we are today, and then take a look at our needs and the direction the department is going in based on trends,” Chief Burford said.
“What’s happening in EMS, fire response, and other calls for service? How has that trended over the last 10 to 15 and what do we expect that to look like over the next 10 to 15 years?”
She explained that the industry’s identity change has been occurring since the 1970s, when it began to fully take on EMS response calls. The department added the responsibility of responding to hazardous material accidents in the 1980s and a decade later took on the duty of responding to threats of domestic terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
“What we’ve ended up with is people that are multi-dimensional — members that are trained for a variety of response situations,” she said. “And that’s why I don’t see our staffing levels dropping in the future, because we’re so well trained in all these fields and as the demands increase, the staffing demands will probably increase.”
What the department lacks is a building that is as multi-capable as its members, she said.
“The building has been wonderful here in the center of town — it’s a prime location where people can walk to, but we’ve really outgrown the building and will continue to outgrow it,” Chief Burford said.
She said space and location are propelling the town’s search for a new fire building.
“Now is a good time to start talking about the possibility of a new firehouse,” Mr. Marconi said. “That way we don’t all of a sudden hire a consultant at the last second to try and figure out how do we get this major project done.
“We’re betting on the level of EMS service to increase significantly, and when that happens, we’re going to need a building that is fit to handle all types of situations.”
With a new building, the department will have the necessary space for equipment and vehicles that it does not have now.
“It’s very unusual in the industry to have what I call ‘stacked apparatus’ — vehicles stacked three deep — but we’re forced into that because of our space,” Chief Burford explained. “Our office space is limited, our functional space is limited, but most importantly, from a location standpoint, we are very disruptive to the downtown area.
“You can imagine, with traffic the way it is on Main Street and the rest of the downtown area, every time a unit leaves the building and goes on a call with lights and sirens blasting, it can be disruptive to traffic, to pedestrians, to retail,” she continued. “I imagine a future location for a fire station that will be less disruptive to the busiest sections of town. Where that is is really up in the air at this point.”
Equipment, gear, vehicles
How many new items will the town need to purchase for this new building? Not too many, it is hoped.
The department currently has a 15-year apparatus replacement plan for its vehicles — engines, tankers and ambulances — in addition to the five-year projection it produces for the town each year.
“We’ve always given thought to what our future needs are and laid these capital projects out because they involve money — all of these items are a part of a scaled-down version of strategic planning,” Chief Burford explained.
Technology has been the department’s ally, creating better response methods, more efficient equipment, and safer gear over time.
These changes have allowed the industry to develop all-purpose, cost-effective apparatus.
Chief Burford believes that Engine No. 1 — “the workhorse of the department” — epitomizes this all-purpose capability and is still the most valuable vehicle in the building, despite the increase in calls that require only an ambulance.
“We’re the type of industry that has developed the type of response vehicle that has all-hazards capability, and the engine has everything you need in the first few minutes of any type of call,” she said. “In more specialized vehicles, you end up losing something. If you only have ambulances, you lose the ability to mitigate fire incidents or hazardous calls.”
As technology eliminates the specialization of certain tools and apparatus in the building, the department will look to its neighbors for assistance in replacing these machines.
“We cannot talk about strategic planning and our future without talking about regionalization as it pertains to emergency services being delivered,” Chief Burford said. “We need to look at how we’re going to better utilize regional resources.”
Examples of this regional effort include the department taking its 1985 ladder truck out of service, the outsourcing of hazmat response calls, and a centralized dispatch system.
“There’s plenty of ladder trucks surrounding us — Georgetown, Wilton, Danbury, New York — so the discussion needs to be, Can we start regionalized efforts with these specific types of equipment? We already do it for hazmat responses and I think we can apply that strategy elsewhere,” Chief Burford said.
“Dispatch is another perfect example,” she continued. “We’re not functioning in an efficient system with the Police Department as the 911 answering point and with fire and EMS dispatch alone with one person in our building; we need to start looking for a more centralized or even regionalized dispatch location.”
Chief Burford said a lot of the planning work will be done inside the department and that it would take about a year to present a completed plan to the town.
She added that once the plan is launched, she wants to talk with community members to involve them in the process.
“I plan on asking the residents about their expectations and where they see fire and EMS involvement in the future,” she said. “We are an important part of the community, and I see that our involvement and our activity is only going to increase here.”