Founded in 1962, Graham Fire & Rescue (GF&R) covers more than 70 square miles in unincorporated Pierce County, Washington, and it is centered 12 miles southeast of Tacoma. It currently serves more than 65,000 residents, encompassing the community of Graham, a United States Census Designated Area. The district includes a mix of urban, suburban, and rural densities, as defined by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).
The fire district is a combination department with full-time, part-time, and volunteer emergency personnel serving the community. The district provides fire and emergency medical services (EMS) response from Stations 91, 93, 95, and 96. Stations 92 and 94 (headquarters) personnel respond to fire and basic life support (BLS) calls that do not require a medical unit.
Since the census in 2000, GF&R has been the fastest-growing large fire district in Washington. Its population, as monitored by the Washington Office of Financial Management, has grown from 38,293 in 2000 to 63,397 in 2017, an increase of 65.6 percent. In 2017, GF&R responded to 6,986 calls for assistance.
Revenue wasn’t keeping up with the demand for service. In February 2018, voters approved a four-year maintenance and operations (M&O) levy to increase staffing and start equipment and apparatus replacement programs. The fire district filled four open positions in September, staffing one additional medic unit to respond to emergency medical service calls this year. Currently, 70 percent of all calls received by GF&R are EMS-related.
In April 2018, GF&R applied applied for an award from the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grants program to accelerate hiring and deal with the growing demand for its services.
The program was created in 2003, and Congress has reauthorized it twice, expanding its scope by increasing the number and type of candidate agencies and extending it through September 20, 2024. The SAFER program is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
Grants awarded through the program are designed to provide funding directly to career, volunteer, and combination fire departments to help them increase or maintain the number of trained, frontline firefighters available in their communities. SAFER grants are intended to increase the number of firefighters to help communities meet adopted standards and attain 24-hour staffing to provide adequate protection from fire and fire-related hazards. SAFER’s goal is enhancement of local fire departments’ abilities to comply with NFPA staffing, response, and operational standards established by NFPA 1710 and/or NFPA 1720 standards.
In September 2018, GF&R was awarded more than $3.5 million to more quickly and consistently staff up. Ten new positions are expected to be filled by April 2019 and eight more by September 2019. The district anticipates that this will add one additional medic unit next year and will add needed personnel to fire engines, greatly increasing GF&R’s effective response force (ERF) coverage.
Response times for additional staffing were modeled using ArcGIS Pro. Since district policy requires a minimum of three firefighters to enter a burning building, an engine with two responders must wait for a second unit to arrive before it can perform any search and rescue operation. In a medical emergency, additional reliability of units is also important. In a cardiac emergency, as many as 10 firefighters/emergency medical technicans or paramedics are needed for high performance CPR to ensure the best patient outcome. Additional personnel on scene also support the medical care of critical patients while they are transported to area hospitals. The new personnel supported by the SAFER award will reduce response times, improve public safety, and increase the safety and effectiveness of emergency responders.
Chief Pat Dale, who joined GF&R in 2017, noted, “The two concerns I heard when I arrived were response times and staffing levels.” Since receiving the grant, GF&R is quickly improving emergency services to residents and the safety of its emergency responders. More information about GF&R can be found at www.grahamfire.com.