An annual report on response times from the Vancouver Fire Department found that the agency struggled to hit its targets in 2018, despite major investments in two new stations.
However, the data show that last year’s relocation of Fire Station 1 to the Uptown neighborhood on Main Street and Fire Station 2 to Norris Road did slightly speed up responses compared with the year prior.
In a report to the Vancouver City Council, Fire Chief Joe Molina said the slow response times came down to travel — as the city’s population continues to boom, its arterial roads become increasingly clogged with traffic, making it difficult to reach a scene within eight minutes.
“It’s nothing to panic about, but we are experiencing a new normal in terms of our response times,” Molina said. “Our turnout time — time from alarm to when we’re en route — is very stable.”
The fire department measures success by being able to make it to at least 90 percent of emergency calls in less than eight minutes. The clock starts when the call reaches the station, and it ends when the last responding fire truck pulls up to the scene.
Last year, the department responded to at least 90 percent of its top-priority calls within eight minutes and 18 seconds. That’s seven seconds faster than in 2017, but still short of the department’s goal, Molina reported.
Rural areas in the northernmost reaches of Vancouver’s urban growth boundary are most impacted by slow response times. Last year, that region saw more than 66 late arrivals from firefighters.
Fire Station 11, which is already in the works and scheduled to open by the end of 2020, will likely mitigate that issue.
Other pockets around the city are also hard to reach in time, Molina said — there’s a small hot spot off Mill Plain Boulevard in central Vancouver, equidistant between Station 3 and Station 8, where traffic slows first responders. A southeastern swath of the city, near Highway 14, saw delayed responses last year. The northwestern corner of the fire district, near the Port of Vancouver, was also underserved.
The biggest success story of the year, the data revealed, was Fire Station 2. Built just a block away from the intersection of East Fourth Plain and Grand boulevards, the station is located smack in the middle of what in 2017 was the worst, slowest place in the city to call the fire department.
Last year, delayed responses in the area all but vanished.
“Overall the system’s very stable, and the majority of the population is being served within our 7:59 goal,” Molina said.
The total volume of calls to the fire department went up by 3.1 percent in 2018 compared to 2017.
The department has a plan to shorten response times in coming years, Molina said.
That plan hinges on A Stronger Vancouver, a package of operating and capital investments that would funnel an additional $30 million a year to city agencies by increasing taxes on businesses and residents and implementing other city-wide fees. That plan is under review by city councilors, who will decide which elements of the plan they want to move forward.
One of the proposals in the Stronger Vancouver plan would replace and relocate Fire Station 3 and Fire Station 6.
Fire Station 3 would move from the corner of North Devine Road and Mill Plain Boulevard “to the east, and maybe just a hair south,” Molina said. That would pull it further away from the new Station 2 and closer to the underserved area on Mill Plain.
“We also need to be cognizant of the future of this corridor,” he said. “This is where the Tower Mall complex is being constructed, so we anticipate this area to be more dense.”
Fire Station 6 would remain near the interchange of Interstate 205 and Highway 500, but it would be moved to a larger lot with more capacity.
The strategic rejiggering could help the department respond faster to some of those existing hot spots, Molina said.
“I anticipate if we get those stations, and Station 11 up and running, we’ll have a very stable system in terms of performance,” he said.
Another plan under A Stronger Vancouver would implement a sprinkler and prevention ordinance. That would update fire safety requirements to include sprinklers in all new buildings, supplementing “long-term efforts to protect the community from fire,” Molina said.