New Watertown Fire Department program significantly reduced response times

Watertown Fire Chief Wade Stock poses next to the departments command vehicle.
Watertown Fire Chief Wade Stock poses next to the departments command vehicle.

When a Watertown woman went into cardiac arrest several weeks ago, a captain from the Watertown Fire Department was on the scene within one minute.

When a Hollywood Township home caught fire earlier this month, Watertown Fire Chief Wade Stock was able to respond within 3 to 4 minutes.

Ultimately, neither incident had a successful outcome. The woman was unable to be revived, and the home was declared a total loss. But for Stock and the rest of the Watertown Fire Department, the two incidents are perfect examples of the value held by a new Duty Officer program that the Department implemented this year.

The new program, in which one of the department’s officers is on duty with instant access to a command vehicle at all times, has reduced response times by nearly 40 percent so far this year. The goal is to get one officer to the scene as quickly as possibly while additional personnel is still in transit.

While the quicker response may not have made a difference in either of the aforementioned instances, Stock knows that even a couple minutes can save lives, and at some point, it probably will.

“If you can get a heart start there on the scene to initiate shock right away, it’s very beneficial,” said Stock, who added that getting even one officer to the scene of a fire as is equally advantageous.

“It’s very beneficial to put eyes on it right away,” he said. “That initial size up is huge.”

The new Duty Officer program has reduced the Department’s response time across the entire 52-squre mile district from 8 minutes in the past to just 5.1 minutes this year. Within the city of Watertown, the response time has dropped from between 5 and 6 minutes to about 3 minutes, which measures the time between when the call is received and when the first officer reaches the scene.

In medical emergencies, the advantages of getting one officer to the scene as quickly as possible are obvious. The command vehicle, a 1999 Chevy Suburban which was already owned by the department prior to the launch of this program, is equipped with a heart start, a medical kit, and various water rescue devices. The responding officer can also begin CPR immediately.

But in the case of the major fire, it would seem on the surface like there is little a single person can do without a fire hose and additional manpower. Stock, however, said that is far from the case.

Having even one officer on the scene allows him to size up the situation and make crucial determinations such as where to place each fire truck, and whether the trucks can drive into certain spaces or must back down a long driveway.

On his way out to the recent Hollywood Township fire, Stock said he could see flames from well down the road. He said he knew immediately that more manpower was needed, and began to call in help from other departments before he even arrived at the scene.

“It’s not very good to find all that stuff out once you get all the way in there,” Stock said.

In addition to basic emergency equipment, the command vehicle is equipped with a computer that connects to the County’s GIS mapping system and provides detailed information about the property. By simply entering the address, the responding officer can get directions to the scene, see aerial views of the property, and view each fire hydrant in the area.

So far, the command vehicle has made use of a computer that was donated to the department, which enables it to connect to Carver County’s mapping system, but not to mapping for the parts of the fire district that lie in Wright County. However, the vehicle will soon be equipped with an iPad that will allow for mapping in both Carver and Wright Counties.

The Duty Officer program was actually implemented late in 2011, but the Department did not begin tracking data until Jan. 1. The program does not include any extra wages for the officers, so it is of no cost to the city. Despite the increase in responsibility, Stock said the program has been well received by the department, and includes plenty of other benefits for the officers.

“We look at it more as experience for new members,” Stock said. “Any new officer coming in now gets a chance to run a command role, gets to learn and practice, and they gain their skills a lot better. They just get more comfortable with every call that happens.”

While the Duty Officer program may help save lives in crucial emergency situations, it also has benefits in situations that are far from emergencies. In fact, one of the primary benefits of the program is actually to allow the initial responding officer to slow down or even cancel the rest of the fleet in situations that don’t warrant a full response. In addition to saving both fuel consumption and wear and tear on the big rigs, it also is in the community’s best interest not to have massive fire trucks hurtling through town at high speeds if not absolutely necessary.

Between Jan. 1 and Nov. 1, the initial responding officer was able to downgrade 39 calls to routine — which means the fleet should still respond, but obey traffic laws — and another 24 calls were cancelled altogether. That represents just over 25 percent of the Departments 248 calls so far this year.

“That takes the risk and the liability off the members and the fleet,” Stock said. “That’s the main thing, is not running that stuff Code 3 through town for an unnecessary reason.”

While the aim of the Duty Officer program is to have somebody on duty at all times, that isn’t the case quite yet. Because all the members of the Department have full time jobs, coverage during the day can be difficult. However Stock said about 14 hours a day are usually covered, and 24 hours a day Friday through Sunday. So far, the two chiefs and five officers that operate the program have logged more than 4,900 hours since Jan. 1.

“The program has been perceived well, and the members all like it,” Stock said. “I’m to the point where I want to see it used more. I’m almost to the point where I’m going to start opening it up to some senior members as well, even if they’re not officers.”