Phoenix Fire Department deals with long response times as population booms

Arizona’s Family Investigates rode along with firefighters to see the toll it’s taking on them firsthand and what it means in an emergency.
Published: Jan. 30, 2023 at 2:41 PM MST|Updated: Jan. 30, 2023 at 8:02 PM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - In an emergency, seconds matter and there’s a national standard when it comes to response times. The Phoenix Fire Department’s number is nearly twice that, due in part to the rapid growth of the city’s population.

Phoenix Fire Department is in crisis. Arizona’s Family Investigates rode along with firefighters to see the toll it’s taking on them firsthand, and what it means in an emergency. As soon as the tones go off, firefighters at Station 13 in Arcadia head to their fire engine. This station is one of the busiest in the city and is also Phoenix’s oldest.

The first responders on staff are called to fires as well as medical emergencies. All firefighters are certified EMTs, and some are also paramedics. In 2022, Phoenix firefighters responded to more than 400,000 calls. That’s up 20,000 calls from 2021! That surge means that if you need the fire department, on average it takes nearly 9 minutes for them to get to you. The National Fire Protection Association Standard is just over 5 minutes. “We have the desire to provide great service,” Captain P.J. Dean said. “We don’t have the ability to provide great service because of our resources and that’s what needs to be fixed.”

Arizona’s Family Investigates sat down with three Phoenix firefighters to learn what’s behind the numbers. That includes Capt. Dean, Capt. Chris Murphy, and paramedic Cameron Allen. They’re all members of the United Phoenix Firefighters Association, Local 493--the union representing Phoenix’s firefighters. “If we’re not to that call on time, that goes from an overdose to a code,” Allen said.

“You start to worry a little about the toll it’s taking,” Murphy said. A big part of the problem is that the city is growing up and out while some older fire stations have only one engine. They’re not equipped to handle the spike in calls. Outer edges of the city are also in dire need of more stations where even more development is happening.

“As these call times get longer and longer, we’re going to see higher numbers of calls that don’t go our way,” Allen said. For its population of 1.6 million people, the City of Phoenix only has 28 ambulances. Despite this, city data shows more than 80% of calls are medical. “There’s no worse feeling than being on a scene and knowing you have to get someone to a hospital, and you’re waiting on that ambulance,” Dean said.

These three firefighters say standup 24′s are becoming more common. That means they’re standing their entire 24-hour shift, and they say overtime has now become mandatory. That’s often another 24 hours tacked onto a shift, meaning they work 48 hours in a row. “As your exhaustion level raises, your decision-making can become impaired,” Murphy said. “We have to make time-critical decisions on say a fire what sort of attack we’re going to make, whether we’re going inside, or if it’s too dangerous for us to be there,” he said.

City leaders are trying to help. They’ve allocated nearly $8 million to create 58 new positions. They also approved a bond measure that will go on November’s ballot to build new fire stations. These firefighters point out that in the last 13 years, only one new station has been built. “We cannot treat the next 10 years the way we’ve treated the previous 10 years,” Dean said.

Dean said more firefighters are using the Employee Assistance Program or EAP, which provides free counseling to firefighters. When asked what keeps them going, Allen said, “It’s the little things. When someone is having the worst day of their life that you’re able to provide a little bit of support.”

While the three said it’s been tough on them and their families, each said they love what they do and are excited to go to work every day. They’re speaking out now because the department is at a breaking point, and the people that live and work in Phoenix need to know that.