Comprehensive report outlines slew of problems at rural fire districts in Kan. county

The year-long analysis by retired Fire Chief Bruce Fuerbringer found inadequacies in equipment, training, staffing, leadership and more


John Green
The Hutchinson News, Kan.

RENO COUNTY, Kan. — After a year of analysis, significant change may be coming to rural fire districts in Reno County.

What form it takes and how quickly changes might occur is far from clear.

For the last 35 years, county commissioners have tried unsuccessfully to address the needs of rural fire districts across Reno County.

The overwhelming theme — shown in a comprehensive report — is that central management by a professional fire chief could solve many of the pressing issues each station faces. Existing fire chiefs could manage the specific needs of individual districts while rolling out uniform policies and training.

Last year, Emergency Management Director Adam Weishaar noted how many rural fire districts were looking to build new fire stations. The construction would cost millions, but there was no clear plan for future fire operations.

Last year the county contracted Retired Fire Chief Bruce Fuerbringer, of 5 Bugle Training & Consulting in Wisconsin, to complete a comprehensive study. On May 7, he shared his findings and recommendations with the commission.

After 90 minutes of debate, the board voted to accept the findings and recommendations in the 29-page report and directed the county administrator and staff to explore ways to bring about the recommendations.

Weishaar promised initial recommendations on a direction by June 8.

A copy of the study can be found at http://bit.ly/RenoFireStudy

Fuerbringer voiced a sense of urgency in correcting longstanding issues.

By law, the county commission serves as the county's fire board. They're "where the buck stops," Fuerbringer said, in terms of oversight, but for the last three decades, each fire district has operated essentially autonomously.

If the commission continues to function in a hands-off approach, the county could get in hot water.

Fire departments are also mandated by Kansas law to file monthly reports with the state — something some of the departments simply ignore, Fuerbringer found.

The problem with that lack of oversight, Fuerbringer said, is that the county commission is liable if someone is hurt on the job, or a citizen is hurt, due to inadequate staff training.

"It doesn't appear that a lot of attention is being given to fire services in Reno County, or the type of things that are going on and type of risks that the county is exposed to by virtue of you being the governing body of the fire department," he said.

"You should give these issues some urgency, to make sure things are going well all around."

He conducted the study, Fuerbringer said, by first interviewing fire chiefs and some fire crews, asking them to complete a survey, making site visits to each department, and observing their practices on some calls. He also researched the history of the county's operations and state laws.

The biggest issue for the county on the whole? Uniformity, and thinking ahead.

Fuerbringer said Reno County significantly lacks basic training in most departments, and there's no uniformity in standards and policies among departments. There's also a failure to conduct "after-action" reports — when departments go over lessons learned from a call, so that the next time, things are done better.

Having a common set of performance standards and expectations, but allowing each fire chief to choose how they meet them, "is a healthy way to allow fire districts to adapt to situations unique to their district while allowing for consistency when working with other districts," Fuerbringer said.

Fire districts should be encouraged to work with each other, he said.

"To problem solve and achieve mutually inclusive goals, leaning on each other's experience, rather than taking the view that everyone else should keep their nose out of their district's business," he said.

Fuerbringer said he looked at response times for each district, as tracked by the E-911 dispatch center. In some cases, response time was similar between Hutchinson Fire and rural fire districts, he said.

But that data is misleading, Fuerbringer said.

"When the city fire department is on the scene in six minutes, they are on the scene fully staffed and equipped, with the apparatus to go into action immediately."

With the volunteer departments, when they report they are on scene that could mean anything from a staffed fire apparatus to one person in his own vehicle with a radio.

Operationally, Fuerbringer said, 50% of the time when an engine leaves the barn, there's not enough staff to respond.

He also found many departments had only a limited understanding of using an Incident Command System (ICS).

"Fire departments know enough to use a rudimentary structure, but they're not putting it all together to be used as it should be," he said. "If you say 'use ICS', they can say they do, but not the level of expertise or competence "

Another serious issue, he said, is a practice in some districts that dispatchers must wait until they've paged the department's firefighters three times and received no response before paging a neighboring fire district.

Yet some volunteers admitted they don't acknowledge they are responding until they had a crew gathered.

A fire can double in size every minute, but there may be "10 minutes of dead air" before triggering a response.

"Imagine you're at a house on fire and there's no response," he said. "I was floored when I saw that system. I saw it in action. I saw a chief waiting and going through multiple dispatch calls."

"There's a real disparity in leadership," Fuerbringer said. "Some want to do more. Some want the status quo. Among the chiefs, there is a low level of understanding of what it takes to be a chief, which is demonstrated by their actions, or lack of action. One said 'We'd love to do that, but we don't know how and there is no one here to train me on it.' Some departments said they do not promote training. One person said he paid for training himself."

For volunteers who aren't willing to devote the time to upgrade their training and learning best practices, he said, the district might be best served by ending their service as firefighters.

There should be a push for more universal equipment, so that SCBAs (air tanks), for example, can be interchanged, and for equipment that meets current safety codes.

Fire officials currently avoid going to the county commission for purchase requests based on interactions with prior commissioners, Fuerbringer said.

"There is no rationale behind your purchasing practices," he said. "Sometimes the board has solid reasons for adjusting requests, but there is little communication about it. If they make their case and the board says it does not make fiscal sense, they may do it anyway and nothing is done."

He learned of practices where departments might make two purchases just under $5,000 to avoid having to go to the commission. He also heard a story about a department where the chief wouldn't replace the battery in a firetruck so firefighters went to Emergency Management, which purchased one.

He visited one fire station where he could barely squeeze past the apparatus because the garage bay was too small. That results in significant response delays to calls, he said.

"We're talking 15 to 20 minutes to get an apparatus on the road," he said. "They are making it work, but it's only a matter of time before they hit a crisis point. They are managing by crisis instead of being proactive, like when equipment hits the end of its useful life."

Some departments feel their station location is not conducive to the most efficient response, but the stations were located based on historic and political implications, Fuerbringer said. There are locations where stations are close to another district's boundaries, but they can't respond until requested, even if the fire is across the highway.

"My analysis is there is a lot of internal conflict, a lot of different perspectives and different cultures, but there's also a lot of conflict avoidance going on," he said.

The suggestion "came up organically" when he was talking to fire chiefs, Fuerbringer said, for a countywide fire chief to provide consistency and smooth out disputes between districts, "to get the organization so it's a fire department with more community than individualism."

"There is a notable desire for central leadership and cooperative response," he said, though not everywhere.

Fuerbringer suggested drafting a 3- or 5-year strategic plan that includes administrative goals, budgets, and operational improvements.

"Your goals should be to improve services, cost-effectiveness, better response time, better relationships," he said. "How do we eat this elephant? One bite at a time."

"None of this is new to you," he said. "But it's tougher to close the doors because taxpayers are paying for it. You don't close your doors, but the shortcomings go on for a long time because of that tax base."

If they can't address issues internally, Fuerbringer said, then the county should look externally and talk about consolidation.

"Why do that? One fire department led by one chief of coordinator? You'd find someone who understands all the leadership and management practices it takes to run a good business. They can coordinate and put an action plan together. You need a charismatic individual to pull this off. You need a strong and charismatic leader willing to stand up to resistance and work their way through it."

Consolidation also eliminates concerns about an automatic response.

"You can still have the districts as outlined now, or you can redraw them to make sure fire stations are more effectivity responsive," he said. "They could still subsist under a primary fire district."

He used to be a fire chief, Fuerbringer said, and understands some may see losing the title as a sign of failure.

"In reality, it will make them part of something greater," he said. "They can still manage the fire station. Each district still needs that type of leader to keep it viable and going."

Another idea Fuerbringer suggested was having Hutchinson Fire automatically respond to structure fires in areas of higher population and greater property value.

He looked at the types of calls in the districts and structure fires accounted for less than 30% of all calls, with one district recording less than 15 in a year.

"Ninety-one percent of the county's population lives within 20 minutes or less," he said. "Of parcels out there, 83% have a combined valuation of $3 billion. Ninety-four percent of that combined valuation is within 20 minutes of the city limits."

Hutchinson Fire has stations located such that they could respond to those areas "and put fully staffed and equipped pieces of apparatus on the scene in the same amount of time it takes to get volunteer districts on the scene."

As soon as sufficient volunteer units arrived on the scene, the command would be turned over to the volunteer fire district.

"Too often this is seen as an invasion, rather than just help," Fuerbringer said. "But talk to anybody who lives in an urbanized area outside the city limits and ask them if they are having a crisis or emergency, if you say you can get someone here in four minutes if we change the system I challenge you to take a survey or referendum and see how many will say 'no thanks, we'll wait for our people.'"

Fuerbringer suggested the first step should be the county commissioners visiting each fire district "to see what their physical environment is and what they are dealing with...."

"To get an appreciation and understanding on which to base discussion and decisions," and to find out directly from fire chiefs what they see as their biggest roadblocks and challenges.

The commissioners, however, rejected that idea off the bat.

Commissioner Ron Sellers said he felt that was the role of the county administrator and his staff.

"I want to give staff some time to digest it and let staff come back to us with recommendations, to approve or alter it," Sellers said.

While Commissioner Friesen said the findings show "failure at the top level, at the commission," he agreed county staff should study the findings and "come back to the commission with two or three ideas, or one favorable idea and a subset of that for the commission to agree or disagree on. Then those suggestions would come from staff and not from us."

Partington said they were willing to take the lead, but "as staff, we need to make sure you have our backs when we go in a direction."

Weishaar agreed.

"My experience with the chiefs, when I send out emails and make calls, is they are less than responsive," he said. "I'd like the commission to take the stance we're ready to implement change... If you're ready to implement change, I'll meet with the fire chiefs and have a frank conversation and start the discussion on where we'd like to go."

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(c)2021 The Hutchinson News (Hutchinson, Kan.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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