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Fire chief says response times under review

Roy Schatschneider

Fire Chief Roy Schatschneider is still working to finish an internal review of inaccurate response times for his department.

Schatschneider said Monday that he expects to have the review finished in about a month. At that time, Mayor Rich Mattern may still like an external review of the data, but the information will not likely impact insurance premiums for residents, officials said.

Schatschneider said that while the inaccurate numbers were likely a result of human error, the reports were in no way purposefully falsified.

“There are a few (response times) that are mistakes, but there are quite a few of them that are explainable,” he said.

Schatschneider and an assistant chief began reviewing the data after The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead requested a data set of West Fargo Fire Department call times dating to early 2011. A Forum analysis found that 85 percent of the department’s response times were a rounded minute such as exactly 4 minutes. In a database that logs start and end times to the second, the odds of any one response time being an even minute are roughly 1 in 60.

The Forum and Pioneer are both owned by Forum Communications.

The Forum’s analysis also found more than a dozen impossibly short response times, such as a 4-minute response to a building fire 11.5 miles away, that would require fire crews to travel at a nonstop speed of about 180 mph.

Earlier this year, the Insurance Service Office upgraded the West Fargo Fire Department’s rating from a 5 to a 4 after a review of the department. The ratings can help lower property insurance premiums for residents. Schatschneider said Monday that the ISO surveyors examined the location of the department’s two fire halls, its equipment and the total calls the department responded to, but not the response time data.

Schatschneider said response times are tracked two ways: Either a firefighter has to manually punch them into computers inside the lead engine or someone at the Red River Regional Dispatch center has to track the times during a call.

If a time is missed, a “best guess” of the response time is recorded, he said.

On Monday, he told the City Commission that part of the data tracked all first responders to the scene. He said in some cases, if a sheriff’s deputy was on patrol near the scene and arrived quickly, that could reflect as a very quick fire department arrival time.

Another explanation for the inaccurate response times is how dispatchers at Red River Regional Dispatch handle the call, Schatschneider said. If dispatchers are distracted or busy with another emergency call, they may not log the arrival time of fire engines accurately.

Red River Regional Dispatch handles 911 calls for the Fargo-Moorhead area. Schatschneider said he is waiting for a meeting with dispatch officials before making a formal report to the commission.

“Again, we are dealing with volunteers here. We are not going to be as thoughtful and forthright as the fully paid departments are,” Shatschneider said.

The West Fargo Fire Department is a nonprofit volunteer force contracted by the city with only three full-time paid staff – the chief and two assistant chiefs – to provide service to West Fargo and the townships of Reed, Raymond and Barnes.

Commissioner Mike Thorstad, whose portfolio consists of fire and police, asked Schatschneider directly Monday if any response times were falsified.

“Neither I nor anybody in my office tried to manipulate any responses,” Schatschneider said.

Thorstad said Monday that the city, with a population expected to swell past 30,000 in the near future, may one day have to look at creating a full-time career fire department.

“It’s something that we are not ignoring. There will come a time when it’s the right time,” he said. “We have an excellent volunteer staff now.”

Mattern said he would probably still like an external review, but he wants to give Schatschneider the additional time he requested to prepare a full report.

As part of the fire department’s 2015 budget of $685,000, Schatschneider is requesting an increase of $35,000 from 2014 to hire a fourth full-time administrative staff member. He said the additional paid staffer will help ensure more accurate data reporting and ease a heavy workload that is increasing with the population and building boom of West Fargo.

“The workload we have now, we just don’t have the time to spend on some of these things as we should,” Schatschneider said. “And with the tremendous amount of inspections we have to do, our two inspectors are just getting overwhelmed.”

Wendy Reuer

Wendy reports for The Forum and West Fargo Pioneer, where she is also assistant editor. A University of Minnesota Morris graduate from North Dakota, Wendy started her career in television news and entertainment in Minnesota and at CBS in Television City, Calif. before working at newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota. 

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