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Chief: Fire department stretched thin

The Grand Forks Fire Department needs more firefighters and a new fire station if it is to respond to fires in a timely manner, Fire Chief Pete O'Neill told City Council members Wednesday.

The Grand Forks Fire Department needs more firefighters and a new fire station if it is to respond to fires in a timely manner, Fire Chief Pete O'Neill told City Council members Wednesday.

"We're basically a one-shot fire department," he said. "We have enough personnel at any one time to fight one fire."

And what if there was another fire?

Firefighters would pull out of whatever fire they happened to be at, the chief said, rush to the second fire to keep it under control and, in the meantime, rally off-duty firefighters and call East Grand Forks for aid.

As a rule of thumb, he said, a fire doubles in size every minute it burns unchecked.

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Besides manpower shortage, O'Neill said his crews are having a hard time getting to the city's southeast corner within five minutes. Fire trucks can get anywhere else in the city within in five minutes 90 percent of the time, he said, but they can manage just 50 percent in the southeast.

That's roughly the area east of South Washington Street and south of 24th Avenue South. The nearest fire station to the Sunbeam area, for example, is about two and a half miles. In most of the city, the nearest fire station is about a mile and half away.

The average response time last year in the area was 6.18 minutes.

Stretched thin

O'Neill used his long years of service to his advantage, noting that when he joined the fire department in 1972, there were 60 firefighters covering a much smaller city. At that time, the area south of 17th Avenue South, he said, was not full of homes and businesses but farmland.

Today, the city limits extend as far as 62nd Avenue South and there are 57 firefighters devoted to fire suppression.

O'Neill said the fire department is more efficient, but, with the city growing, efficiency isn't enough.

The four fire stations are now spaced roughly a mile and a half apart. One near the cemetery in the north, one near Wal-Mart in the south, one near Purpur Arena in the east and the new one in the Industrial Park in the west. Based on that pattern, a new southeast station would probably be in the vicinity of Optimist Park.

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The crew of 57 allows for three shifts of 14, with enough extra so they all get enough time off. These 14 are just enough to spread around the four stations.

Cost of coverage

To staff the fifth station, O'Neill wants to bring staffing to 72, to have 17 firefighters on duty at a time.

The cost to the city for the new crew would range from $686,000 to $840,000 a year. The lower estimate would allow for 69 firefighters and require a lot of overtime. The higher estimate is equivalent to six mills of property taxes based on today's property values. In five years, when property values are higher, the city would require only five mills, finance staff estimated.

The new fire station would cost $1.2 million and would be a no-frills kind of station that's essentially a house with a big garage.

Council members don't yet know where all that money would come from.

During budget discussions Wednesday, some considered transferring more money from utility fees, an idea most of the council resisted in the past, or adding a quarter percent sales tax for streets, sewers and buildings.

Reach Tran at (701) 780-1248; (800) 477-6572, ext. 248; or send e-mail to ttran@gfherald.com .

Related Topics: FIRES
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