Anchor Point fire readiness questioned Rural fire departments hard to maintain

Posted: Monday, November 20, 2000

Aging equipment, unreliable vehicles, medical emergencies and an intermittent lack of volunteers available for fires are putting the 2,300 residents of the Anchor Point Fire and Emergency Medical Service Area at risk, two former members of the department said this week.

Jay Graham, fire chief until earlier this year when he quit, charged that the service area's 0.9 mill property tax levy captures too little tax revenue, and the service area spends far too little to support viable fire and ambulance operations.

Graham is a veteran firefighter who previously worked for Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. as a firefighter in Valdez. He recently quit the Anchor Point department in frustration, he said. He also said he currently is in a dispute with the service area's insurance carrier over an on-the-job injury and wanted that to be public as he levels criticisms at the department and the service area board.

Former Emergency Medical Services Assistant Chief Carolyn Roderick, who, like Graham, also quit in frustration in February after years of service, said the service area board's desire to keep costs to a minimum has hurt the department, forcing volunteers to rely on undependable equipment. Like Graham, she believes the service area's tax rate is far too low.

The current chief, John Phillips, also has many years of experience, including a previous stint as chief. He insists that while there are hurdles to clear, the service area is doing the best it can with limited resources to meet the challenges of "frontier firefighting."

He acknowledged the occasional lack of sufficient volunteers, due largely to their responsibilities to families and jobs. He also admitted funding is tight -- but that's typical of fire departments across the state, according to state emergency officials.

Efforts are under way to address shortages, Phillips insisted, including training more volunteers and upgrading equipment, as well as improving the service area's fleet. The service area is about to acquire a new ambulance and recently added a fire truck, now stationed at Nikolaevsk.

The fire station on Milo Fritz Road is filled to capacity with vehicles -- mostly older models, to be sure, but well maintained, Phillips said.

The current year's budget represents an increase over the previous fiscal year and an increase in the mill rate is likely by July. All of that will help expand the ability of the fire department to meet the demands of the growing rural community's fire and medical emergencies, he said.

According to the current borough budget document, however, the available fund balance -- money in savings -- for the service area has fallen from more than $100,000 in fiscal year 1999 to less than $20,000 this fiscal year.

The differences of opinion over the readiness of the department have become serious matters of discussion in Anchor Point. The debate may even have contributed to the outcome of the October municipal election, in which new members of the service area board were selected, Phillips said.

Graham said the service area always has counted on a nucleus of dedicated volunteers, but they are too few.

"There are times when we lack enough responders," Graham said.

Phillips agreed, but said those times are rare.

Anchor Point has mutual-aid agreements with the Homer and Ninilchik fire departments, which respond if needed. The last major example was the fire at the Alaska Spruce Products sawmill in May.

Graham served as incident commander on the mill fire. However, that event was not a typical emergency and Anchor Point's occasional lack of adequate numbers wasn't a factor, he said. Five agencies participated, including Ninilchik, Homer, Central Emergency Services, state Division of Forestry and Anchor Point.

Most emergencies aren't that large, however. Graham said he worries that smaller fires may end up destroying homes because a shortage of volunteers will delay response. As it is, most house fires are met with the so-called "surround and drown" tactic, designed not so much to save a house as to prevent fire from spreading, he said. Poorly built structures especially -- and there are many in the service area -- will "go to the ground," he warned.

Too few people isn't the only problem, Graham said.

Much of the service area's equipment is old. During his tenure as chief, the service area lacked sufficient finances for upgrades, proper vehicle maintenance or for training, he said.

Mechanical problems plagued some vehicles last year and ate into the budget. There were times when he went directly to a fire scene, only to get a call on the cell phone that this truck or that ambulance wouldn't start, he said.

"I'd say, 'You're adults. Deal with it. Just get that equipment out here,'" he said.

"The problem isn't with the volunteers," he added. "Things happen from the top down. I don't feel there is enough oversight from the borough to make sure departments are being taken care of."

The borough, through the service area, owns the equipment, according to borough attorney Colette Thompson. The volunteers just show up to use it. The service area board's job is oversight and to provide for maintenance, but the ultimate responsibility lies with the borough, she said.

A healthy reality check and a bit of political will would address the funding problem, Graham said. In his opinion, the property tax mill levy is far too low to support the service area properly and should be raised. The fire department needs an annual budget of at least $200,000, and probably more, he said.

According to the borough budget for fiscal year 2000, which ended June 30, total expenditures for the service area were just $108,000, not counting a $60,000 capital transfer from savings, most of which was spent to cover a portion of the cost of a new ambulance.

The current year's budget calls for $135,215 in spending, including $20,000 in capital expenses.

By comparison, the Homer Fire Department's 2000 budget will spend roughly $642,000 by year's end, according to Homer Finance Director Dean Baugh.

Phillips said rural volunteer fire and medical services aren't typically blessed with the twin luxuries of copious cash or an abundance of well-trained, always available volunteers. They must make do with what's available, and in some instances, simply hope for the best.

"We are 100 percent volunteer," Phillips said. "It happens that at certain times everyone is working."

When that occurs, Anchor Point officials notify dispatchers, who let neighboring fire departments know they may be called. That concerns Homer Fire Chief Bob Painter.

Mutual-aid agreements notwithstanding, a short-handed neighbor means dividing resources and lowering response capabilities in the Homer area while Homer equipment and personnel are occupied next door, he said.

"Anchor Point doesn't have enough personnel to man an ambulance, much less meet the demands of a major structure fire," Painter said. "That concerns me. It concerns me when they're calling ahead."

Homer will continue to respond under the mutual-aid agreement. However, this is the time of year when the number of fires typically increases, which means calls for help may be coming more often. According to Painter, Anchor Point fire officials have told him they are extremely short-handed, especially during the day.

That happens most during the summer, Phillips said, when the demands of seasonal industries such as fishing draw volunteers away from the area. He runs a charter business of his own and often is unavailable.

"We have a small core group who really get worked," he said. "But that's pretty typical of departments everywhere."

Indeed, state emergency officials say the problems faced by Anchor Point's service area are characteristic of conditions in service areas throughout the state.

"That is true, and it often has to do with the tax base," said Assistant State Fire Marshal Kelly Nicolello. "Decent-sized cities don't usually have problems with funding or personnel, but the more rural you become, the further from a tax base you get, and when the pool of volunteers gets smaller and smaller, the harder it is to get the job done."

Phillips said he believes the Anchor Point volunteers have done an excellent job with available resources. With continuing training sessions and budget increases, the ability to serve the region will only get better, he said.

Indeed, the service area is about to acquire a new ambulance. It also recently has stationed a fire truck in Nikolaevsk and is training volunteers there. Phillips said he hopes one day to be able to build water storage tanks at the far ends of the sprawling 128-square-mile service area to cut down on the turnaround time for tanker trucks.

But there are other problems, too, Graham said.

Equipment such as hoses and air-breathing apparatus aren't tested often enough, he said, adding he takes full responsibility for not testing hoses during his year as chief. It was a matter of addressing more critical needs, he said.

"There are a myriad of things wrong," he said.

He once attempted to get firefighters with beards to shave so that oxygen masks would fit properly -- a requirement of federal standards, he said.

Graham said there is a danger to firefighters if masks don't work properly. They are designed to provide a positive pressure, keeping smoke and gases out of the mask. For a bearded man, that means a 30-minute tank can run out in as little as 10 minutes because the fit is loose, he said.

"That's a liability for the borough and the insurance company," Graham said. "They are not complying with the law."

Phillips said the state is considering new regulations designating several different classifications of firefighter. For certification and insurance reasons, some may be restricted from interior firefighting.

But it's expensive to train firefighters -- several thousands of dollars each, once class time, equipment and instructor costs are tabulated, Phillips said.

"Our budget will never allow for complete compliance with National Fire Protection Association standards," Phillips said. "I don't know how it could, frankly. That's the Alaska problem."

Keeping volunteers once they're trained also is problematic. Some have left the force after learning how much work it can be and what it means to drop everything and respond to an emergency, Phillips said.

Until earlier this year, Carolyn Roderick served as assistant EMS chief for the department. Her husband was a member of the Anchor Point Fire and Emergency Medical Service Area Board, until October when he lost his seat to Joe Tracy.

She, like Graham, quit over differences of opinion regarding readiness and safety. She also said there is a critical lack of volunteers at times.

"I quit because things got in pretty sad shape," she said. "Mainten-ance was not done. When you go on an ambulance run to a hairy scene, you want to be sure the ambulance and equipment get there and back. It became a battle to get some problems fixed."

Roderick said Anchor Point's economy requires many of its residents to be gone part of the year, including the current EMS chief, Robin Proctor, who fishes in the summer and is gone part of the winter teaching EMS courses in the Bush.

Proctor disagrees with Roderick about the readiness of the EMS division and insists it is extremely rare when the department can't draw an adequate number of volunteers to a call.

"Very seldom do we have a situation where we don't have enough people to respond," Proctor said. "The problem is not the lack of volunteers. But because Anchor Point is not a hub of an economy, volunteers have to work away from home."

Proctor said her EMS volunteers train weekly and have become quite skilled, even winning trophies at competitions at the past four annual state EMS symposiums in Anchorage.

As for the department's sometimes-shaky vehicles, she said there was one ambulance with chronic transmission problems that required some $7,000 in repairs over several years, but that machine is gone.

"Friday, I'm going to Min-neapolis for the final inspection on a new ambulance that will be here shortly," she said.

The department has two ambulances.

The service area department was molded to fit the Anchor Point community in 1983, Roderick said. Times have changed, however. Among other things, she believes tax revenues are insufficient.

"The mill rate is too low. Ideally, I would say a 2.5 mill rate is more realistic," she said.

Again, Proctor disagreed.

"They need to have funding that will cover their operations adequately. I don't know exactly where that is," she said. "Anchor Point has the lowest mill rate for any fire department in the borough. We have run it adequately, I believe."

She said she doesn't think sizable increases in property taxes are likely or warranted at this time.

Proctor said there have been discussions about funding paid positions with the EMS and fire services, but that's a ways off, too, she said.

"I'd love to have paid people, yes, and in the future, perhaps that would be a good thing," she said. "I'm not sure at this point whether the tax base exists to fund that. It could double our budget to do so."

Proctor has been EMS chief for several years and has more than 15 years experience with the department.

For his part, Phillips said Roderick may be partly right about the low tax rate and pointed out that a mill rate increase is likely by the fiscal year 2002 budget that begins in July.

"As a taxpayer, I'd just as soon the mill rate not go up," he said.

Rising assessments will increase revenues, anyway, he said.

The differences over the issues are a political matter, and the tensions it has caused have had an effect on morale within the department during the past year, Phillips said. However, he declined to name adversaries or engage in name-calling, he said. There always has been some tension between the service area board and its cadre of volunteers.

However, Phillips said he believes the current service area board will be to the liking of most. Further, he said he has a great deal of respect for Graham and Roderick. Spend any time in the field with Graham and his experience is evident, he said.

"I wish Carolyn would come back. She's one of the best EMTs we've ever had," he said.

Numerous phone messages left for service area chairman Bob Craig seeking comment on issues raised in this story were not returned.

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