Kansas City, Kan., Fire Chief John Paul Jones boasts that his department is quicker than most in getting to a fire or medical emergency.
Average response times in the city, Jones says on the department website, set “the benchmark of excellence throughout the metropolitan area.”
Tell that to people who live on the city’s west side, and eyes roll.
“It’s not good at all,” said Matt Watkins, a resident of the Piper area who led the public safety transition team for then newly elected Mayor Mark Holland. “You have a heart attack and you’re in the northern part of the county ...”
Even Jones acknowledges that service is less than adequate out west and agrees that, when it comes to fire protection especially, Kansas City, Kan., is a tale of two cities.
On the east side, home to two-thirds of the city’s 18 fire stations and most of its residents, response times are “excellent,” one expert told The Star.
According to the National Fire Protection Association, it should take no more than four minutes for the first truck to arrive at a house fire. And it should take no more than eight minutes for backup to arrive, so that 15 or 16 firefighters are putting out the blaze and saving anyone who might have been inside.
In eastern KCK, fire trucks generally arrive even quicker, and each is staffed with one or more paramedics who can provide care while waiting for an ambulance, if one is necessary.
But in Piper, where hundreds of new houses have gone up in recent years, residents depend on a single fire company at 123rd Street and Leavenworth Road for initial response to emergency calls.
The four firefighters on each shift at Station 8 are lucky if they can get to the farthest reaches of the territory they cover within four minutes. And it can take 10 to 15 minutes more for backup to arrive from the two next closest stations, according a new report paid for by the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kan., as well as The Star’s own analysis.
“We’re underserved,” said Mike Kane, who represents the Piper area and the rest of the Fifth District on the Unified Government Board of Commissioners. “I’ve been complaining about that for the 10 years I’ve been on the commission.”
Not only is it a potentially dangerous disparity that puts thousands of people at risk, but homeowners out west also feel it in their wallets.
“My insurance would probably be a little cheaper if we had a station closer,” said home builder Earl Freeman. He lives six minutes north of Station 8, a 36-year-old metal building that Kane and others disparagingly call “the pole barn” because it resembles a farm shed and housed a volunteer fire department before the area was annexed more than 20 years ago.
But filling that gap in coverage will require more than finding the several million dollars it would take to replace or renovate the existing fire station and add two more stations, as suggested in the recent report on the city’s fire and rescue services.
It also could entail an overhaul of the Fire Department, if a majority of the commissioners go along with the recommendations of the Phoenix-based consulting group the Unified Government hired to review fire and rescue operations. The debate over that will surely stretch into next year and perhaps beyond.
The Unified Government commissioned the study at the urging of Holland, who was concerned that the city pays far more for fire protection than other cities its size. Yet it gets uneven service and less bang for those big bucks in some parts of town.
He has similar concerns for the police and sheriff’s departments, which are also under review.
“The greatest threat to public safety in our community,” Holland said, “is running out of money to fund it adequately.”
Among the report’s more contentious and, in some cases, costly suggestions:
▪ Close four fire stations in the city’s eastern third.
▪ Renovate or replace all but three of the other stations at what could cost tens of millions of dollars.
▪ Reduce the number of firefighters through attrition by 5 percent or more to help pay for some of the added expenses.
Even with fewer stations and firefighters, KCK residents would, on average, have better fire protection than they do now at a cheaper cost, according to Kevin Roche, who led the study for FACETS Consulting. The excellent coverage in the east would diminish some but still be within national standards, he said, while the rest of the city would meet the four- and eight-minute response minimums.
The concept unveiled last month appeals to Holland, who says reductions in operating costs are the only way the city will have the resources to replace aging equipment, add new stations and fix the others.
“There will be no new fire houses out west without consolidation in the east,” he said in an interview last week. KCK has “tremendous overlap” in the number of stations in the older parts of town because they had to be positioned closer together when the city was young.
“Historically, fire stations are spaced a mile and a half apart,” Holland said, “because that’s how far a horse can run at full gallop before it drops dead.”
Holland could have trouble selling station consolidation to everyone with a stake in what is sure to be an emotional debate.
Some neighborhoods that stand to lose fire stations are bound to object, as are their representatives on the commission, Kane said.
Both the Fire Department administration and the firefighters’ union also will have something to say about what happens next.
For instance, Jones enthusiastically endorses what he considers the study’s most important suggestion: having at least four firefighters assigned to each pumper truck. That’s up from the current three, which is not recommended by experts or national industry guidelines that say teams of four are the only safe way for the first truck crew on the scene to fight a fire. That way two firefighters can go inside the house and two can stay outside in case their partners need help getting back out.
“You can’t break into teams of two with three people,” he said.
But Jones is not sold on the idea of consolidating fire companies, saying the study’s suggestion of reducing the overall number of stations from 18 to 16 “still has to be vetted out.”
And then there’s the union labor agreement. It sets a minimum number of fire companies and, therefore, the number of stations the Unified Government must operate.
“To me, it’s like borrowing from Peter to pay Paul,” Local 64 union business manager Bob Wing said of the proposal to use the savings from closing eastern fire stations to pay for operating new ones out west.
But he said the union supports other proposals that would improve the living conditions of firefighters at the stations and improve fire safety, like adding that extra person to each pumper company.
Public safety accounts for roughly 60 percent of the Unified Government’s budget, with the Fire Department getting the biggest share. And that support has been growing at what Holland considers an unsustainable rate for years.
While the fire report doesn’t address that issue directly, it does back up Holland’s point by showing that KCK taxpayers are paying far more for fire and rescue service than the residents of other communities that are similar in size and circumstance, with both an older urban core and a newer suburban area.
For each resident of Kansas City, Kan., it costs about $294 to run the Fire Department. The per capita cost of fire protection in Olathe and Independence is less than half that. Topeka residents pay two-thirds as much as KCK does.
The study’s authors acknowledge that those numbers may be an apples-to-oranges comparison in some cases. Not all those communities’ fire departments also run the ambulance system.
But what accounts for most of the difference, the report said, is staffing levels at the firehouses. Even running three men or women on a pumper as opposed to the recommended four, the KCK Fire Department still has far more firefighters on the payroll than other cities its size.
Part of that is because the department has 22 truck companies operating out of 18 stations. And not all are pumper, of course. Many companies do have four firefighters on other types of trucks.
And part has to do with leave and vacation policies.
Many other departments keep 3.5 firefighters on staff to cover each position on a fire crew. So for a fire department that has 100 firefighters on duty at any one time, as KCK does, a city with a 3.5 “relief factor” would need to have 350 on the payroll to cover three shifts and still have 50 extra full-time equivalents to cover for co-workers when they are sick or on leave or vacation.
In KCK, the relief factor is twice as high, at 4.1, with 410 firefighters covering those 100 slots.
Lowering that number is key to funding all the construction and equipment replacement he contemplates, Holland said.
“The only way to fund it is to address our relief factor,” he said.
But Wing, the union business agent, called the comparison with other departments “a numbers game” that doesn’t reflect reality. The reason other departments have lower relief factors, he said, is that they can can carry vacation time over to the next year.
KCK firefighters must take the five weeks they get each year (after 12 years on the job) in the same year they earn those days.
“If we don’t take it, we ... don’t carry it over,” Wing said. Instead, they are paid for it, which he says makes the department’s payroll costs look worse.
It’s complicated. Finding the money to pay for the suggested improvements won’t be easy. The union is doing its own study, Wing said, that might counter the consultants’ proposal to close stations.
And with property taxes as high as they are in Wyandotte County, a bond issue or sales tax hike might be a tough sell.
Earl Freeman and his neighbors out west certainly wouldn’t embrace a tax increase when they already complain taxes are too high for the service they’re getting.
He hears more complaints about taxes than lack of sufficient fire protection.
“What they need out here is more rooftops to help the tax base,” Freeman said.
More rooftops, and yet until money is found to build fire stations, there won’t be enough crews to put them out should those roofs catch fire.
It’s one of those chicken-and-egg things that people in KCK are only beginning to sort out.
“That’s where the heartburn comes in,” Jones said.