PUBLIC SAFETY FACILITY — One thing that Chief Scott Ferguson knows better than anybody is that there’s no such thing as a fire department that can focus solely on fires anymore.
Less than a fifth of the calls that come into fire departments across the country involve putting out blazes. Approximately 80 percent of calls that evoke a fire response are medical in nature, and others can include search and rescue or gas threats.
Under Ferguson’s leadership, the Santa Monica Fire Department plans to expand its role far past even those now-traditional areas.
Ferguson and his team are pushing to increase efficiency in the jobs they already do as well as reach out to youth, businesses, community organizations and even other departments to make sure the voice of the fire community gets heard and that it responds to those that rely on it in turn.
“We want to be part of the bigger picture,” Ferguson said, and, unlike fire departments across the state and country, Santa Monica’s has the resources to do it.
At the same time, the department finds itself coping with new challenges, like the coming Exposition Light Rail Line, which will create a barrier between the northern and southern portions of Santa Monica and bring thousands of newcomers to the city by the sea.
Even national health care policy plays a role by expanding the number of insured individuals and, by extension, the number of people who can afford to call for emergency medical services.
In the time he’s observed the fire service, first as the son of a chief and later as a chief himself, Ferguson has watched the fire community change from a part-time job held by handymen and carpenters to a professional force armed with science, data and best practices both in fighting fires and preventing them from ever occurring.
He plans to make Santa Monica a Petri dish for continued innovation in the role that a fire department plays in its community, and when he sat down with the Daily Press, he explained what that could look like here.
(Questions and responses have been edited for clarity and space.)
Daily Press: What is a modern fire department tasked with that might surprise community members?
Scott Ferguson: It’s interesting because I’ve gone to a lot of presentations, be it to the neighborhood groups or one of the clubs or something, and I ask them, “What do you think we do?” … They think we put out fires. It’s in our title, it’s on the side of our rigs.
We cover fire prevention, homeland security, emergency medical services, special operations, even airport work to some degree. We have an airport unit at station five. Those are the traditional things we do that take up a lot of our time.
DP: How has that role evolved over time?
SF: When my father started, we were all fighting fires. Then we went to (emergency medical services) in the 1970s. In fact, Santa Monica was the first city to have paramedics on engines. This area was one of the first to have paramedics, period, but we were the first to have them on engines. Then we ended up with homeland security and technical rescue. We’re an all-hazard response partner, but we want to see ourselves as a little bit more.
DP: How has that changed the kind of person that becomes a firefighter?
SF: The fire department used to be a part-time job. They were all carpenters, plumbers and tradesman, typically. Good people, good with their hands, and that liked the outdoors. They would decide to become a firefighter because it’s kind of cool, maybe to supplement their income somewhat and for the flexibility of the schedule. It’s not that way at all anymore. The fire service is extremely competitive. I might see 1,000 people take the test and might actually interview myself, after going through several other interviews and tests, … 100 to 150 people over the course of a particular list.
DP: You said that you want to see the department as a bigger player here. What kind of initiatives do you want to put in place?
SF: I met with the (Chamber of Commerce) fairly recently … to say, “Hey, the fire department is not all about walling ourselves up.” We’re not about the stovepipe approach to things. We want to be seen as something grander as what we may have been doing before.
If we’re out there trying to attract businesses, I want the fire and police chiefs to be sitting right there with the economic development people saying, “We do this as a team, we approach this as a team.” If there’s technology we need to look at … we’re the Silicon Beach, right? If we’re supposed to have that much technology, how can I tap into that resource and how can we be more of a value-added?
There’s an expectation that because of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, more people are going to have insurance. Statistically speaking, if there are more people with insurance there’s more calls coming out because they feel more confident that they’re covered. Of those people who have insurance, a lot of that’s going to be Medicare and MediCal. If it’s Medicare and MediCal, our cost recovery is going to go down. How can we as an organization be on the front of that? How can we be in the preventative business in partnering with UCLA, as an example, in order to be able to create a program of community medicine, community paramedics?
That would decrease the amount of calls that emergency rooms are seeing, right, and partnering with each other we can be subsidized by each other’s efforts. That’s the future.
DP: What else do you have going on in the community?
SF: Another example of what we’re doing, we’ve started an adopt-a-school program. When I started we used to go to the schools and do Jiminy Cricket videos and show them how to get out of their house. We want to be mentors to these kids. When I have people come take our exams, none of them have Santa Monica roots. None of them are going to community college to be firefighters. So we’re trying to reach them at the fourth grade so they can say, “I want to be not just a police officer, but a firefighter.”
DP: What challenges do you see facing your department?
SF: I think the biggest threat right now, outside of the typical fire, is that we’ve got continuing construction. Anytime there’s construction and planning going on, it increases our response times and, depending on what the nature of it is, it increases our call volume. In the last five years, calls have progressed steadily up, and now we have a light rail system.
DP: How will the Exposition Light Rail Line impact firefighting in Santa Monica?
SF: Our biggest concern right now is we don’t know what the impact of bifurcating our community (will be). We did a quick study and found that more calls are traveling north to south, far more than we had actually expected.
(The light rail line will run east to west, meaning that if a fire engine needs to travel south or north, it might have to cross the train tracks.)
So A) we don’t know what’s it’s going to do in terms of our response times and B) it’s going to increase the call volume, especially while the community is getting used to having a train and C) there’s going to be more people here, which is already going to increase the traffic. Ideally it’ll decrease the traffic on the street because it will defer some of that, but there will be more people here as well.
There are still big unknowns. We’ll put it that way.
DP: How will the Expo affect other popular places in Santa Monica?
SF: We do know that there will be a lot of people on the (Santa Monica Pier), but we don’t know how many. That’s going to be ultimately our challenge. The pier is already overloaded. We’re working closely with the pier and police and Harbor Patrol right now to try to create a plan that would have a larger presence on the pier and would have a larger fire presence.
We had a small fire a few weeks ago. That got up underneath the pier a little bit. Our truck company was able to cut it off, but there are examples up and down the coast of piers that have gone big. So we want to make sure we’re on the right side of this before something big happens. We don’t want something tragic to happen before we adapt to it.
DP: Do you have the staff you need to keep the city safe?
SF: Statistically speaking, we have enough firefighters, but there are other opportunities for other delivery models that we are actually looking at as well. That could be public-private partnerships or redeployment of existing resources. Let’s say at one point we took our engines at different parts of the weekend and put them on bicycles in order to deploy them more readily. Data says we have more calls of this type here, and so we pre-deploy. Police departments have been doing this for years; other fire departments are trying to do the same thing. Especially with light rail going to do what it’s going to do, we’re going to try to pre-deploy.
So I tell you, statistically speaking, Santa Monica is well-staffed, well taken care of. The (City) Council has taken good care of us. Now it’s on me. It’s my responsibility to look at the resources we have and deploy them effectively, and that means I’ve got to analyze data and guess where it’s going to happen and see if I can get people there before it does.