The Homer Volunteer Fire Department is understaffed and is struggling to retain volunteer firefighters and EMTs. That was the message interim Fire Chief Robert Purcell gave to the Homer City Council during a presentation Monday. Fewer volunteers and limited staffing means longer response times, and that’s already affecting homeowners’ insurance rates.
Interim Fire Chief Robert Purcell says the Homer Volunteer Fire Department is suffering. The insurance Services Office or ISO is a data analytics firm that evaluates risk for homeowner’s and commercial insurance providers.
“The ISO has identified a 50 percent reduction in the number of firefighters responding to fire alarms since 1997,” he said.
Purcell says that’s due to understaffing and lack of training opportunities for volunteers, which have also been dwindling. He says volunteers are leaving the department because there’s not enough paid support staff who handle everything from trainings to initiating response to calls.
“Basically, the fire department needs to grow the number of firefighters and EMTs by about 15 positions each,” he said.
The problem is funding. Other fire departments on the southern Kenai Peninsula such as the Anchor Point Volunteer Fire Department and Kachemak Emergency Services have slightly larger budgets. Homer funds its department through property taxes, and the department has received flat funding over the last 10 years.
“There's been inadequate resources to meet needs, effectively a 30-percent budget cut since 2009, assuming we only maintained the budget for inflation purposes," he said.
The issue is already affecting homeowners and the city. The Homer Volunteer Fire Department’s rating with the Insurance Services Office has gotten worse, causing commercial fire and homeowner’s insurance premiums to increase in Homer. Purcell says if the city doesn’t improve conditions in the fire department, premiums could continue increasing.
Purcell says the only other option would be converting department volunteers into paid staff.
“It's exceptionally hard to rebuild a successful fire department once it's failed, it’s not where you want to go because it gets very, very costly,” he said. “Permitting a volunteer service to degrade results in the hiring of full-time employees at great cost.”
He says hiring more support staff is the cheaper option, and he has hope that the city can continue to mostly staff the department with volunteers.
He asked the council to fund two new positions immediately: an EMS assistant chief and an emergency service specialist in order to increase response times.
“What it does is it puts somebody in the station after hours, on weekends, who will initiate that response,” he said. “Our estimate on average, it shaves off about 5 to 8 minutes. That, for an EMS call, can be life-saving.”
It would cost about $120,000 to fund those positions through the end of this year. Both positions would increase the fire department’s current budget of about $1 million to about $1.2 million annually. Purcell adds reducing response times will not only provide additional safety in the community, but help both resident homeowners and the city save money on insurance premiums. He says those savings would offset the city’s investment in the new support positions.