Hamilton officials: Factors have improved because of firefighter’s death

In recent years, Hamilton’s firefighters have been calling for consistent use of a fourth medical service ambulance to answer the more than 14,000 calls that emergency 911 dispatchers send out yearly. The city hopes to make that happen in 2020, officials said.

Adding a fourth medic unit could lessen the time it takes for aid to reach the sick or injured in parts of the city, a critical factor especially for people suffering heart attacks or strokes, where minutes matter.

“I’m all in on it,” said Fire Chief Mark Mercer. “The city manager and safety director are all in on it. It has to provide value, and it has to be something that’s affordable and sustainable.”

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International Association of Fire Fighters Local 20 President Tony Harris and others attended a December city council meeting and urged consistent use of a fourth unit.

“The city wants to staff a fourth medic unit,” said City Manager Joshua Smith. “We recognize out of 14,000 annual runs dispatched by 911, less than 100 are structure fires. There is no doubt our medic units remain very busy. This places additional stress on our fire engines, which also respond to medic calls.”

Smith said the city in 2016 hired an additional nine firefighters so it could staff the fourth unit. But because of unfilled positions, vacation days and other staffing issues, “we often have more than nine firemen off daily,” Smith said.

Since the council meeting, the city has been “working to create a pro-active plan to better staff the 4th medic unit, while working with the union to accelerate our hiring practices to fill open positions, while decreasing the sick and long-term leave through preventive measures,” Smith added. “In the past we have discussed many other ways to provide more manpower, but those talks stalled during collective bargaining negotiations.”

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Harris called addition of the fourth medic unit, which Mercer predicted would be done using more overtime instead of hiring more firefighters, “a great first step.”

“It needs to be a committee unit available 24/7/365 to truly help make our response quicker and safer,” Harris added.

Mercer said of response times: “They’re absolutely important. And in certain areas of town, those response times have increased. Not a lot, a little bit. And sometimes it’s important. And sometimes it’s not. But what we focus on is let’s deploy our resources the best way we can.”

One thing the city has kept its eye on is, “Most municipalities in the country are seeing decreased tax revenue in 2019 and projecting worse in 2020,” Mercer said. “I think right now, what’s going on in Hamilton (job growth) is going to pad us from that, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to make it exempt for us.

One improvement the city made since the Dec. 28, 2015, death of firefighter Patrick Wolterman in an arson fire is a change to radio communications.

When emergency 911 dispatchers alert fire stations about a call, that goes to them on a 154-megahertz frequency. But fire truck radios operate on 800 megahertz. The night of the fire that killed Wolterman, most firefighters didn’t hear an alert that fire was in the building’s basement because it went out only across the 800 mhz frequency, before they were in their trucks.

Now, 911 dispatchers don’t reveal additional information, such as fire in the basement, until all responders are in their vehicles and report they are responding, using their truck radios.

That change was one of several that happened because of Wolterman’s death.

Another thing Mercer hopes will happen in coming years is a new fire station, probably on South Erie Boulevard (Ohio 4).

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“As we look forward into the future — a handful of years, I don’t know when — we’ll need to replace fire stations, and at that point, that study (of fire and EMS response times across the city) will be more important,” Mercer said.

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