Fire Truculence

Is it a case of rogue firefighters or meddling city managers? Whatever it is, the Phoenix Fire Department isn't used to the scrutiny it's getting from City Hall.

They work round-the-clock shifts out of two fire stations. Besides a bed, the fire department provides the vans along with gas, oil and maintenance.

So far this year, the vans have answered 4,000 calls, up from 2,000 the year before. It's still an outlaw program, operating without the fiscal blessing of the city budget office.

Last fall, the Phoenix Police Department came up with the idea to have the fire department vans respond to domestic-violence calls, which the fire department wouldn't necessarily already be rolling on. The two agencies worked out an agreement where, for $68,000 from the police budget, the fire department would arrange for enough additional staff and vans to handle another 2,500 police calls.

That was supposed to start in January. Nearly a year later, the proposal has yet to get the go-ahead from City Hall, despite prodding from both agencies.

Storment says the fire department has no intention of dropping its current program; it just can't pick up the police calls without the added dollars.

Sculley, who oversees the city's budget, says she's not heard much about the police-fire proposal even though it's apparently been floating around for nearly a year and has been on the city council agenda more than once. She says she was briefed on the vans only two weeks ago by the fire department.

Marsha Wallace, the deputy city manager, is familiar with the proposal. It's been hung up, she says, while city officials look into coordinating "victims' assistance" programs throughout the city--the city prosecutor's office, for example, also works with crime victims. "There's several different tracks going on and a lot of confusion," she says. "We need to be able to communicate to the community what we're going to be doing and how we're going to be doing it and not raise expectations."

Wallace says she doesn't know why it's taken most of the past year to work out the coordination problem. "I recognize there's some frustration anytime something takes a little bit of extra time."

That's especially true of the firefighters, she suggests, because "they're used to getting there fast."

The Phoenix Fire Department also has a reputation for getting there first. The agency likes to lead the rest of the country, whether it's getting to fires within four minutes, putting a piece of equipment to work in an innovative way or conceiving a new program.

Ten years ago, the department opened its "wellness center" as an in-house medical clinic that focused on the physical problems peculiar to firefighters. It's headed by a doctor, a toxicologist who specializes in work-related exposures like tuberculosis, hepatitis and HIV. Every year, firefighters are put through much more extensive testing than they'd get from a routine private physical. And it focuses on the things most likely to go wrong with people who fight fires for a living, from the capacity of their lungs to the strength of their hearts.

Now housed on the first floor of the department's new headquarters building at 150 South 12th Street, the health center has evolved into a combination clinic, testing and fitness facility that is envied--and copied to varying degrees--by fire departments across the country.

The center is another example of Brunacini doing what he thinks is best for the department--and stepping on some toes at City Hall in the process. It's created some hard feelings within the city bureaucracy. No other city agency has nearly the extensive testing and screening program in use at the fire department. And it's being reviewed for the second time in two years, scrutiny that rankles fire officials.

Sculley says the health center came to her attention last year when she chaired the post-Hoot Gibson task force. A whistle-blower complained about a company called Strength Training that was providing physical-therapy services for the center. The company is owned by a former Glendale firefighter, and the informant suggested the contract was improperly issued. The review didn't find any wrongdoing, but it raised some questions about bid procedures that the city auditor wanted to explore in a second audit, she says.

Sculley also says the fire department health center now spends about $150,000 more per year for industrial health than it had in the past.

Brunacini says the center was built within the department's budget, cobbled together over several years. "Does it make much sense to spend $115 million on firefighters and then not maintain them?" he says. "I worked in this department a lot of years where you'd spend money on changing the oil on a fire truck and not 10 cents on a firefighter."

He notes that the cost of operating the center is heavily outweighed by the money the city saves on healthy firefighters, particularly in disability costs.

In 1996, for instance, the fire department had four employees on disability retirement at an annual cost of $100,364; the police department had 32 at a cost of $720,523.

The fire department, which has about 1,200 firefighters, had a "loss time" rate of 175.2 hours for 1995-96, compared to the San Francisco Fire Department with about 1,300 firefighters and a loss-time rate of 822 hours over the same period, according to figures provided by the Phoenix department.

Brunacini and others credit the health center with keeping firefighters physically fit and thus less injury-prone. And when they do get hurt, the workout equipment and therapy programs get them back on the job much faster, they say.

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