Unless that call comes from Edith Patch Hall or Doris Twitchell Allen Village, that’s what happens.
“So far, we haven’t been burned by that,” said Ben Pratt, a member of the fire department.
According to a department memo, as of Jan. 2, 2011, “All automatic fire alarms to [Patch] and [DTAV] will be with single engine — all others will remain the same for now.”
“Obviously if the engine shows up and there’s smoke billowing out of a building, all hell’s going to break loose,” Pratt said.
Patch and DTAV are the only suite-style on-campus housing, and each apartment comes with a kitchen. Apartments in Patch have an oven and a range stove, while apartments in DTAV just have ranges.
“Kitchen fires are one of the No. 1 cause[s] of residential fires in the country,” Pratt said.
Pratt, a firefighter with more than a decade of experience who has been with the Orono department for four years, shared his views when asked about the situation, which was brought to the The Maine Campus’ attention by an anonymous third party. He emphasized that his opinions should not be assumed to match those of other crewmembers. Pratt was approached because he is known through a mutual acquaintance.
According to Norman “Buddy” Webb, chief of the Orono Fire Department, it’s the high number of fire alarm activations caused by students using those kitchens, whether by burning food or simply creating smoke while they cook, that led him to reduce the response to Patch and DTAV alarms.
“No one’s ever questioned this before,” Webb said. “If I thought for one second that we weren’t providing the right amount of protection, I would definitely send a ladder truck.”
While Webb sees the high volume of calls related to cooking as “nuisance” calls, Pratt sees them as an indicator that Patch and DTAV need a more diligent eye to guard against a potential fire.
“You’ve got a lot of kids, college kids, living in a dorm environment with a kitchen,” Pratt said.
“I think it’s sketchy for us, and I think it’s sketchy for the folks that are up there.”
Reason for restriction
Sitting in his downtown Orono office on Thursday afternoon, Webb paused several times during an interview to listen to traffic on the scanner calling his crews out of the station. The first call sent out two crewmembers with an ambulance.
“There is nothing written anywhere that says I have to respond with a ladder truck,” he said. “Just because we have it doesn’t mean it has to go.”
The department has a standard operating procedure on file for handling fire alarm activation calls from university buildings. Webb said that procedure was altered by a memo when he decided to change the response to calls from DTAV and Patch. Neither document could be found in the station that day, but a copy of the memo that announced the response change was provided on Friday.
The second call to come in during the interview originated from the Delta Tau Delta fraternity house on College Avenue, and since the ambulance and its crew members were still gone, only the engine went to the house. Asked if the ladder truck would have gone as well if the ambulance had managed to return before the call, Webb said yes.
“That’s what the plan calls for,” he said.
Pratt said the importance of the truck isn’t just the ladder it’s named after, though with DTAV and Patch both standing at three stories, it is plausible that a ladder truck could be needed. The truck itself is a “toolbox,” he said.
“We use the equipment that’s on that thing more than the ladder itself,” Pratt said, adding that the truck carries rope, harnesses and air monitoring equipment, among other gear. “A lot of our true rescue equipment is on that truck.”
The average response time to DTAV and Patch is 6 minutes, and Webb said if the crew members with the engine arrived on scene and decided they needed the ladder truck, it could be there in about 4 minutes.
“Fires on a growth stage can double in size every minute,” Pratt said, unless efforts made to contain it are successful.
By that measure, a fire in Patch or DTAV could have the potential to double in size nine times before the ladder truck could arrive.
When Pratt started serving in Orono, each of the three crews — A, B and C — had five people. Currently, C crew has five people, and A and B crews have four people each. Pratt is on C crew.
“They’ve been kind of rotating it around so no one’s been on a crew of four for more than a year-and-a-half,” Pratt said. “It just wears on you.”
He said the financial constraints the town is facing are the source of the slimmed-down crews. The department needs a minimum of four crew members on duty during each shift, which was OK when crews had five people, Pratt said.
With two crews of four each, Pratt said the department pays more overtime because someone calling in sick or taking a vacation day can drop the number of crew members on duty to three, forcing the department to call in someone who is off duty.
“We’re trying to do a lot with a little. We’re trying to do more than we have before with less than we’ve had before,” he said.
One of the ways to stretch that crew is to cut down on the level of response. Patch and DTAV are the only areas of town where Webb gets numerous calls as a result of cooking, and he said the history of sending full resources to an area where they are not needed — he estimated 95 percent of calls to DTAV and Patch fit this scenario — is what prompted him to change the policy.
“We go to Patch Hall and DTAV probably 10 or 12 times to one call somewhere else,” he said. “The issue has not got anything to do with money. The issue has to do with using the appropriate resources.”
The ladder truck is the most expensive vehicle to run, and racks up costs at $350 per hour. The engine costs $225 to run per hour, and the ambulances each cost $150.
Patch and DTAV both have automatic sprinklers that start spraying if they detect flames, which Webb said was a factor in his decision. According to department data, there have been 44 fire alarm activations caused by cooking in the two dorms since the beginning of the school year.
“The only reason we do that is to cut down on the expense of running these vehicles,” Webb said. “I don’t think it’s necessary [to send the ladder truck] for a building that has automatic sprinklers.”
Paying for services
According to Janet Waldron, UMaine’s vice president for administration and finance, the university pays the town of Orono “payment in lieu of taxes” to cover municipal costs, which include fire and police assistance. The university pays a lump sum each fiscal year to the town, and it’s up to the town to decide how that money is spent.
From the 2007-08 fiscal year to the 2010-11 fiscal year, UMaine’s yearly payment in lieu of taxes was $646,466. That price tag rose by $6,465 for the most recent payment.
“We increased by just an inflationary factor,” Waldron said. “It was a minimal increase.”
While the university paid a steady amount to the town for municipal services, the budgets for the fire and police departments fluctuated. According to town budget reports, the fire department spent $1,701,275 in the 2007-08 fiscal year.
With one exception, the amounts budgeted for the department decreased each year, leaving the budgeted figure to stand at $1,273,450 for the most recent fiscal year. Its year-end expenses came in under that figure by approximately $97,000.
Those decreasing budgets mean the fire department cut costs from the 2007-08 fiscal year to the 2011-12 fiscal year by approximately $525,000. However, that trend appears to be reversing, as, according to the town of Orono, the fire department has requested a budget of $1,520,750 for the 2012-13 fiscal year.
Waldron did not know that Webb had decided to alter the level of response to campus alarms based on the location of the call.
“I cannot imagine they would not do the appropriate response,” she said. “They are incredibly responsive.”
UMaine spokesman Ron Lisnet said the university echoes Waldron’s confidence in the department’s decision-making.
“There’s no formal policy, but UMaine basically does not get a report of what equipment that the fire department sends to any particular call,” Lisnet said. “That is fine as far as the health and safety folks here are concerned.”
A question of consistency
The inconsistency of response is what irks Pratt, though he believes Webb would not intentionally place anyone in harm’s way. That three pieces of equipment could roll to a call in Cumberland Hall while only one could roll to a call in Patch, buildings located diagonally from each other across Long Road, doesn’t make sense to him.
“If it’s Cumberland Hall, everyone gets up in the middle of the night,” Pratt said. “But when we go to either Patch or Doris Twitchell, the call will go out per the response plan … but all you’ll get is the engine.
“I don’t think there’s enough difference in those two buildings to justify [a reduced response],” he continued.
Webb doesn’t see it that way.
“On calls to those two buildings, we send the engine,” he said. “I don’t think anyone’s getting any more treatment or any less treatment.”
The University Volunteer Ambulance Corps responds to fire alarm activations on campus, and Pratt sees this as an opportunity to amend the overall response. If paramedics will be on scene anyway, he says, why not make the policy to roll the engine and ladder truck, leaving the Orono ambulance behind?
A well-established mutual aid agreement with Old Town also makes it easy to call for backup if it’s needed, though Old Town’s station is farther from campus than Orono’s.
“At least if we have the ladder [on scene], someone else can come behind us and use it,” Pratt said.
“It seems like the response should be equivalent.”