Few agencies are looking forward to the reopening of the Murray Morgan Bridge between South 11th Street and the Tideflats early next year more than the Tacoma Fire Department. The renovated span will allow fire and medical crews to answer emergency calls generated from the Tideflats from several downtown stations. That overlap prompts the closure of Station No. 6, at 1015 E. ‘F’ St., near the center of Tacoma’s international shipping hub. The Tideflats once had two fire stations that served one of the larger container ports in North America. The overlapping of service areas in the Tideflats by downtown stations will mean emergency crews will still be able to respond to fire and medical calls despite the loss of a dedicated station on the waterfront, fire officials said. Other changes include Station No. 13, at 3825 N. 25th St., mothballing its engine and converting an extended-cab pickup truck used as a command car into a response truck for basic fire and medical calls between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Service calls in that area made outside those hours will be handled by other stations, which overlap the neighborhood. Station No. 15, at 6415 McKinley Ave., will make the same change but provide service from the station around the clock. Department projections predict no change in response times around the city, about 6:05 minutes for a first responder arriving on the scene and 8:16 minutes for the first medical company to arrive.
“We have to make the best of a bad situation,” Fire Chief James Duggan said during a City Council study session this week. “Our goal is to provide the same level of service as we have been providing.” The net result of the changes will mean the loss of 27 commissioned firefighters and two civilian staff positions as well as two commissioned emergency medical technicians and one support position that would bring the city’s fire service from 16 engines down to 13 to cover 72 square miles of service area that has 216,438 people. The cuts translate into a savings of $7.3 million during the next two years from the city’s general fund and another $2.9 million from the emergency medical services fund, if approved by the City Council as currently proposed. Departments around the city are making cuts of around 15 percent to avoid a projected shortfall of $63 million during the 2013-14 budget set for adoption in early December. The department cut $9.3 million earlier this year to cover a shortfall in the current budget. That cut meant the loss of 24 commissioned firefighter positions that were already vacant.
The Fire Department budget for the next two years totals $128 million and has 357 firefighters and 32 civilian positions on its payroll. That is down from a five-year high of 443 positions in 2007, when the budget was $118 million. One saving grace for the department’s next budget was receiving $7.7 million in Federal Emergency Management Agency grants to support 37 positions until 2014.
Called SAFER grants, the federal funding went to fire departments around the nation to retain emergency responders as budgets were being cut during the downturn. The grant means, however, that the city cannot lay off any firefighters for the next two years or it would have to return the federal dollars. That means the current cuts will most likely come from not filling vacant positions, payouts or retirements.