Homework

Hi Wake County friends! Back in January I was appointed a citizen representative on the Wake County Fire Services Administrative Committee, which has been tasked with drafting a long-range plan. I’d like to give you all an update on what I’ve been doing since that time. But first, a disclaimer:

This is not an official communication channel of Wake County Fire Services nor the Wake County Fire Commission. This blog represents the views and opinions of its author, David Handy. Any comments published on this blog represent the views of the commenters only. I am writing this on my own behalf as a private citizen and not on behalf of any other group.

Ok, with that out of the way, here is my report. So far I have attended two monthly meetings of administrative committee. I am diligently doing my homework to come up to speed so I can be a full contributing member. I have been handed about 300 pages of documents at these two meetings, about half of which I have read so far. These documents include the last three long-range plans for Wake County Fire Services. When there are things in the documents I don’t understand, or when people bring up terminology at the meetings that I don’t understand, I’m not shy about asking questions. For example, I emailed several questions to Director Campasano about items in the 2017 Staffing and Deployment Study. I appreciate the timely replies he has given me.

IMG_20190302_153825733-paper-documents
Stack of documents I have been given at the Jan. and Feb. Administrative Committee meetings.

The administrative committee meetings are open to the public, though not to public comments. At the last meeting on Feb. 27, we had 13 committee members in attendance, and I believe four people in the audience, all of them fire chiefs. The committee meetings are all recorded. You can find the minutes and full MP3 recordings online here: http://www.wakegov.com/fire/commission/subcommittees/Pages/admin.aspx

If you happened to have a couple of spare hours to listen to the Feb. 27 meeting, you would hear me asking lots of questions. As I mentioned before, I’m determined to get a good understanding of how Wake County Fire Services works so I can help them with their problems.

What are their problems? Well, for starters, they have a greater than $1 million dollar deficit, swiftly rising towards $2 million.

Some Things I’ve Learned

They employ quite a few TLA’s (Three Letter Acronyms) and other specialized terminology, such as:

  • ERF: Effective Response Force – the number of firefighters that need to arrive at the scene to deal with an incident. For a high risk fire the number is 15. For most medical responses the number is 3.
  • EFD: Emergency Fire Dispatch
  • RMS: Records Management System
  • CAD: Computer-Aided Dispatch
  • NFPA: National Fire Protection Association. Among other things they publish standards for fire service quality.
  • NFIRS: National Fire Incident Reporting System. Among other things they publish a system of 3-digit codes for classifying fire and emergency incidents.
IMG_20190227_150427030-whiteboard-response-time
Whiteboard drawing by Chief Cooper of Cary Fire Department, in response to my question at the Feb. 27 committee meeting about the definition of call response times. The “ERF” at the right is when all the people are on site that need to be there. “TO” stands for turnout, meaning the time from when the call comes to the station and the wheels of the fire truck are rolling towards the destination.

Some important facts I have learned recently:

  • The City of Raleigh is completely separate from the Wake County fire services. They respond to calls in neighboring areas only if they can get there 30 seconds faster than a Wake County fire department could.
  • The City of Raleigh answers 911 calls and dispatches Wake County fire units as well as Raleigh fire units. Wake County reimburses them for the costs of handling Wake County calls.
  • Wake County has a population of about 1 million people. About 20% of them live in unincorporated areas outside of municipal boundaries (these are round figures, not exact.)
  • Wake County Fire Services gets all of its funding from a Fire Tax levied as part of our property taxes. This tax is paid only by people living in unincorporated areas (with the exception of the Town of Wendell, as I explain below.)
  • Wake County Fire Services includes 18 fire departments. Nine of these are “cost share” fire departments, meaning they get some of their funding from a municipality and some of it from the county fire tax. The rest of the departments get all of their funding from the county.
  • The Town of Wendell has opted to pay the county fire tax and receive all of its funding from the county fire services.
  • The Town of Cary, instead of receiving a percentage of its fire services funding from the county, gets reimbursed for providing service to nearby unincorporated areas on a per-call basis.
  • There is a huge variance in the number of volunteer firefighters in each fire department. Swift Creek is 100% volunteer. Holly Springs has no volunteers. The rest of the fire departments are somewhere in between, with the municipal departments tending to have fewer volunteers and departments in unincorporated areas (such as Fairview) having more volunteers.

One of the big mysteries I still need to investigate is where the cost-share percentages come from. For example, as of 2017 the Apex Fire department served a municipal population of 46,412 and an unincorporated population of 5,617. So 10.8% of the people they serve pay the county fire tax. Yet 19.37% of their fire budget comes from the county fire tax. As another example, in 2017 Garner Fire-Rescue served a municipal population of 28,080 and an unincorporated population of 28,720. Therefore, about 50.6% of the population they serve pays the fire tax. The county paid 48.44% of their budget. Why are those cost share percentages so different from one another in comparison to the percentages of people involved? It makes sense to me that the amount of territory to be covered needs to be taken into account, but that doesn’t explain everything. Garner Fire-Rescue served 64.1 square miles of unincorporated area (as of 2017), while Apex served 47.1 square miles of unincorporated area. I will investigate further.

What is the Committee Doing?

The Wake County Fire Commission was tasked by the Wake County Commissioners to do two things:

  • Establish a standard of quality of emergency services they will provide
  • Present a plan for providing that level of service

At the Feb. 27 meeting, Chief Herman of Garner Fire-Rescue presented a method for determining service quality, in the form of “Community Risk Assessment & Standards of Cover” document. This document has benchmarks for arrival times for different types of emergencies, and for urban vs. rural environments. The document looked complete in terms of the different types of emergencies to be covered, but the benchmark times in that document are all blank. Filling in those blanks will be an effort over the next few months.

In fact, it will be so much work that the committee agreed to start meeting more than once per month. This will represent an additional challenge for me as these meetings are typically held during my working hours, and I will have to make up the time spent in these meetings. Fortunately, I work over the Internet for an international company that spans multiple time zones, so usually my working hours are flexible.

What is the Committee Not Doing Yet?

I haven’t heard any plans or proposals yet for addressing the glaring revenue shortfall. At the last meeting Chief McGee showed me a graph indicating a bad trend – county fire tax revenue going down, but county fire expenses going up. I need to look into this more. I need to understand the current cost share system, and see what might need fixing. I also intend to explore other revenue and cost savings options. I have some ideas and have been given some suggestions, but I need some time to digest the data understand it better. The deficit matters. If we don’t fix it, someone else will, and in manner not to our liking.

I still have a boatload of things to learn and come up to speed on. Over the coming months I will be meeting with some fire chiefs in the county to get their perspective and also more data (some things that the county does not collect directly.) I have one such appointment scheduled for next week.

Thank you neighbors again for your support. You are the reason I am doing this.

Your neighbor, David

P.S. Your comments and questions are welcome.

4 thoughts on “Homework

  1. Thank you so much, David. I read every word. I’m wondering if you have any information with regard to ETJ and funding. You may or may not be aware that Fuquay-Varina has a request to expand their ETJ by over 20,000 acres. My neighborhood, Blaney Farms, is cut in half by the request. Homes south of Ten Ten would be included in their proposal, homes north of Ten Ten would not. Are ETJ’s considered part of the unincorporated areas of Wake County or are they considered part of the munipicality for the purpose of Fire taxes?

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  2. Hi Jane – My understanding of how ETJ’s work is that people in the ETJ still pay the fire tax (and do not pay municipal taxes). However, they are required to get permission from the municipality for building permits and abide by other municipal rules and restrictions. This is particularly upsetting for people with hobby farms who own chickens, goats, etc. Their lives get a lot more difficult. I don’t see the benefit to anyone. Do the municipalities think that by forcing people into ETJs against their will it will make them give up and go ahead and vote to be annexed? From the citizen responses I’ve seen so far, that’s not the case!

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