A new perspective on the Davis Fire Department

By From page A4 | September 04, 2013

Perhaps the most permanent impression of my four-hour ride-along with the Davis Fire Department will be their rapid response to each call.

I arrived at the downtown station a few minutes before 1 p.m. a week ago Tuesday. After introducing myself to Capt. Bobby Weist and firefighters Burke Cahill and Ryan Crow, I was told that they had a training session planned. Another engine company would be joining us shortly.

But then, at 1:03 p.m., the alarm sounded. There was a medical emergency on East Eighth Street. Engine 31 was dispatched.

In 25 seconds, the three firefighters and I were out of the station, speeding toward an apartment building across from the former Valley Oak Elementary School. Before this first experience, I assumed it took much longer — a minute or two — to get a fire engine en route.

An incident on my mind, as we drove through Davis, had happened the day before in Woodland. I was on Gibson Road east of County Fair Mall. A fire vehicle approached from behind, its siren blaring and its lights flashing.

Half or more of the cars pulled over and got out of the way, as the law requires. I stopped my bicycle. But the rest obliviously ignored the emergency siren and lights. And as a result, the WFD was slowed getting on scene.

I thought that story would amuse the Davis firefighters until I experienced in Davis what they see every day: Many drivers here don’t make way for emergency vehicles.

One firefighter told me some people learn to drive in different countries, where the rules are not the same. Another said it’s getting worse as more are distracted by their phones and text messages.

I wanted to pull out my imaginary ray gun and shoot the dopes who failed to yield as we drove to East Eighth Street.

We arrived three minutes after leaving the station. An elderly man, who was being cared for by his granddaughter, had had a seizure in their car in the parking lot. While Weist gathered information about his medical history and what had happened, the other two attended to the patient.

Firefighters are trained as emergency medical technicians. Until the ambulance arrived — four minutes later — the ill man was in the care of Crow and Cahill. Crow told me in the station later that the patient was postictal, a common consequence of a seizure. (An hour later, they treated another seizure patient with similar symptoms.)

As I reported in this column three years ago, the Davis Fire Department normally arrives on scene at a medical call before the AMR ambulance. And whenever the discrepancy is five minutes or more, fire is always first.

My experience last week was in line with my 2010 examination of dispatch records. Engine 31 was sent on three medical calls during my Aug. 27 ride-along. The ambulance arrived four, 10 and six minutes after Engine 31. In a life-or-death situation, an extra few minutes could be critical.

The reason fire personnel are faster to medical calls is simple math: We usually have three fire companies spread across Davis from east to west, yet often there is only one ambulance in our entire city.

We had been back at the downtown station for a few minutes when the next call came in for a medical emergency at the Arco gas station on Mace Boulevard. The South Davis fire engine was unavailable, and the closest available ambulance was in West Sacramento.

Thanks to Crow’s fast driving, we arrived in under five minutes, again having to fight our way past cars that failed to pull over.

Fortunately, the patient did not appear to be extraordinarily sick. Weist and his team followed their normal procedures treating him, and 10 minutes later the ambulance arrived.

One firefighter told me that the AMR service has improved in the past few months. He thinks it is because AMR’s contract is up for renewal, and the company has ordered its employees to do a better job. I have no way of verifying if their performance has changed, but the business logic makes sense.

Because Engine 31 was responding to calls one after another for most of my first two hours with them — in between medical emergencies we were dispatched to a reported downed power line — their scheduled training session had to be cancelled.

And then, as commonly happens, no more calls came in for Engine 31 the last two hours of my ride-along. But during that span, a Davis strike team packed up and left for the Rim Fire in Tuolumne County, and a West Davis engine was sent to a seven-alarm fire in Fairfield.

As readers of this column know, I have been critical of the city’s contract with the Fire Department’s union. I remain critical. They are overcompensated.

Some firefighters mistakenly believe I have a vendetta against their department or against them personally. Neither is true. I admire the work they do. It’s vital. But that doesn’t mean our city’s policies should go unchallenged as we lurch toward insolvency.

Davis continues to have a huge fiscal hole, and a big part of that was dug by not properly managing labor costs, especially with the Fire Department.

Yet having spent a full afternoon riding with the DFD, I have a new perspective, and I have advice for my readers, including members of the Davis City Council: Sign up for a ride-along.

Our firefighters are professionals. They care about their work. And sitting high up in a big, red fire engine racing to an emergency gives you a point of view you’ve likely never had before.

— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. Reach him at [email protected]

Rich Rifkin

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