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Hilton Head Fire & Rescue response improved; staffing remains concern

Shifting staff and installing emergency-access gates to Hilton Head Island communities led to quicker responses to fires and medical emergencies, a town committee learned Monday.

But the Hilton Head Island Fire & Rescue Division said it needs more firefighters if it is to make larger gains.

Response times improved slightly from 2009 to 2010, but the department lacks the manpower to make simultaneous fire and ambulance calls from some stations, according to a report to the town's Public Safety Committee. Despite the improvement, response times still lag a town standard and national benchmark.

"If we can add three people -- one extra person per shift -- that would allow us to prevent one station" from having a unit out of service, Fire Chief Lavarn Lucas said. "That would put a substantial dent in lowering our response times."

Of the more than 6,000 fire and medical responses last year, units arrived within two minutes 24 percent of the time and within three minutes half of the time. That compares to 20 percent and 47 percent, respectively, in 2009, according to the division's 2010 annual report on operations.

A four-point jump might not seem like much, but that's 4 percent of 6,000 calls, Lucas pointed out.

"You're talking about a quicker response to more than 200 calls," he said. "... Trimming minutes, even seconds off of our response time can have significant impact on the successful outcome of an incident."

A house fire can reach more than 1,100 degrees in three and a half minutes, and brain cells deprived of oxygen begin to die in less than five minutes, fire and rescue officials said.Fire and rescue personnel responded to 83 percent of its 2010 emergency calls within five minutes.

The National Fire Protection Association sets a benchmark of responding to a fire within four minutes and a medical call within eight minutes 90 percent of the time. The town has a goal of responding to all calls within five minutes 90 percent of the time.

The largest obstacle in reaching those targets is staffing, Lucas said.

Though the division improved the number of times an engine or ambulance is left out of service, three of seven stations do not have enough firefighters per shift to dispatch both an engine and ambulance, if needed. That meant a unit was out of service 25 percent of the time in 2010, compared to 36 percent in 2009.The town turned down a four-year $975,420 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to pay for nine new firefighters in 2009. The grant would have paid for 75 percent of the cost in the first year and gradually decline over the next three years until the town was responsible for paying all the salaries.

Town officials determined they could not afford the cost. The same is true for the coming fiscal year. No additional positions have been budgeted.

"It is an expensive proposition, which we recognize," Lucas said. "... (We) will continue to make adjustments to assure we are providing the most rapid response possible."

Committee chairman and Town Council member Bill Harkins hailed the improved response times.

"We have a tremendous asset that is working well," Harkins said. "Most communities would hope (for) and cherish the response times (we) have."

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