Sarpy County's three largest fire departments take too long to respond to emergencies when measured against national safety standards.
Bellevue, Papillion and La Vista are going to great lengths — and spending millions of dollars — to improve response times. But at the same time they are being called to more and more emergencies in Nebraska's fastest-growing county.
It's clear that fire and emergency protection in Sarpy County is feeling growing pains as those departments struggle to reach national fire standards.
Sarpy firefighters are already at a disadvantage because emergency dispatchers are also taking too long. A typical dispatch in Sarpy County takes about one minute, 45 seconds — much slower than the 911 national standard that says most calls should be dispatched within a minute.
A World-Herald analysis of five years of Sarpy County fire department response times found:
» Bellevue has made dramatic gains in response times in the past five years, but it's still not up to the national fire standard. Last year it took Bellevue firefighters about four minutes to arrive at the scene of an emergency after they were dispatched.
» Papillion's response times have stayed steady, at about 4½ minutes. They're doing much better inside Papillion itself — about 3½ minutes for a typical call. But response times stretch out to six minutes when the calls reach farther south in the wide-ranging Papillion fire district.
» La Vista has seen a dramatic increase in call volume, and its response times have been inching up. La Vista officials say the city probably will move toward paid firefighters later this year. Now it typically takes La Vista firefighters about seven minutes, 15 seconds to respond once they receive a call.
» In the western half of the county, fire departments in Gretna and Springfield continue to rely on volunteers to cover a wide area, which pushes their response times minutes higher than in neighboring communities. The figures analyzed by The World-Herald aren't detailed enough to directly compare volunteer departments to their national standard.
Even a minute can be critical in emergencies: The quicker that firefighters arrive, the better the outcome. In medical situations, a few minutes' faster response time can mean a patient avoids death or brain damage. In fires, a couple of minutes can make the difference between saving a house and losing it to flames.
Two Sarpy fire departments, Bellevue and Papillion, have greatly improved their response times by switching from volunteer to paid fire departments, at a cost of millions of dollars. La Vista is looking to join in with Papillion's department.
“It's part of the cost of government,” said State Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who was part of a legislative movement to force Bellevue toward paid firefighters. “When you're a town like La Vista with that kind of economic and tourism presence, it's important to the public that you have lower response time.”
The benefit of a paid department is that there are people paid to wait at the station for emergencies. In most volunteer departments, firefighters must first drive to the fire station before they leave for the fire.
Even the best volunteer departments generally can't match paid departments' response times, and the national standards take that into account.
The National Fire Protection Association rates departments according to how quickly they respond to calls in 90 percent of the cases, factoring out the longest 10 percent of calls.
Paid fire departments should arrive at calls within five minutes of dispatch for medical calls and five minutes, 20 seconds for fires, according to the standards.
Volunteer departments have looser standards that also factor in population density. In urbanized areas such as La Vista, 15 firefighters should arrive within nine minutes.
The World-Herald's analysis found that Bellevue reaches calls in the recommended time in about three-fourths of the cases. Papillion meets the standard between 50 and 60 percent of the time, well short of the 90 percent mark.
At least one La Vista firefighter arrives at an emergency within nine minutes 70 percent of the time. The data did not include how long it took 15 firefighters to get there, though it's enough to tell that La Vista is not meeting the standard.
The change to a paid department is costly. But as a city grows and its fire department starts taking more and more calls, it becomes difficult for volunteers to perform all fire duties. Eventually the transition becomes all but inevitable.
In the case of Bellevue, the city waited so long that the Nebraska Legislature forced it to hire a paid chief. In 2010 Bellevue then began the move to hire part-time paid firefighters.
That improved response times by more than two minutes. Even so, Bellevue fire officials say it's difficult to keep up with the community's growth.
Bellevue's next step is to hire full-time firefighters. That move has encountered a few bumps, mostly because of the cost, but officials hope to start hiring for full-time positions this year.
A longer-term problem is the positioning of the fire stations. Now, Bellevue's fire stations are placed in such a way that the department can't reach all the calls within the response time standard, Fire Chief Perry Guido said.
He said he hopes a new agreement with Papillion and Omaha will help firefighters reach far-away residents faster.
Ultimately, Guido said, the community has to decide whether it's willing to pay for more structural changes to improve response time.
“I'm here to respond to what the public's expectation is,” he said.
Retired Air Force Col. Kathryn Gribben said a city the size of Bellevue should have professional firefighters, and she's willing to pay more in taxes to have them.
When Gribben's heart stopped last year, she needed a defibrillator right away.
Bellevue Fire Department EMTs arrived five minutes, 45 seconds later and almost certainly saved her life.
With part-time paid firefighters on staff, the department has put a focus on strong response to cardiac cases. Since 2011, Bellevue has seen a dramatic rise in the number of people who survive a cardiac arrest: 18 percent, which is much higher than the national average of 8 percent.
“Knowing that there are people at the fire station that are going to jump in the trucks and rush out, that's huge,” Gribben said.
Papillion was the first in the county to make the switch to paid firefighters, in the 1990s. That decreased its response times from about 10 to 12 minutes to a little more than 4½ minutes — and even faster inside the city limits.
Papillion Fire Chief Bill Bowes said the department has focused on cutting down response times inside the city to the national standards. That's where the stations are, and that's where most calls come from.
“People who live (in rural areas) I think understand that they're farther away from help, and that's part of living in the country,” Bowes said.
In the 58 square miles outside the city that are covered by the Papillion Fire Department, response time is slower.
The calls are so spread out that the department would have to add several more stations, and the accompanying staff, to fix the problem. But each new station wouldn't deal with many calls.
“It's hard to justify it financially,” Bowes said.
Still, Bowes said residents have come to expect more from their city as it has grown. Now, people move to Papillion for a “small-town feel with big-city conveniences,” he said — including paid professionals who respond quickly to emergencies.
In neighboring La Vista, residents report a similar shift.
As La Vista has transformed over the past 15 to 20 years, residents and businesses have higher expectations for their city services, said Trenton Magid, a principal with World Group Commercial Real Estate, with connections to some of La Vista's largest developments.
“A lot of people wouldn't even know that the city of La Vista is volunteer currently,” Magid said.
Along with residential development, more people are coming into La Vista for work or to visit the Embassy Suites Hotel and Convention Center. That creates more calls for firefighters to answer.
Officials in La Vista say volunteer firefighters can't keep up with the call volume, which has grown by more than 150 percent in the past decade.
That's exacerbated by a struggle to recruit and retain volunteers, many of whom are leaving for jobs at paid departments.
City Administrator Brenda Gunn said the increasing response times aren't the problem, they're a symptom of the problem.
She and Fire Chief Rich Uhl said the city's volunteer firefighters are doing the best they can, but they're on the verge of being overwhelmed with calls.
“We've got the best people that we've ever had,” Uhl said. “But even so, the demands are becoming overwhelming when they have to deal with their own life issues.”
The most likely solution is what the city describes as a “merger” with Papillion, in which a joint paid department would provide services from La Vista's existing stations. That is expected to cost less than forming a brand-new paid department, though officials haven't finalized a figure.
The World-Herald's analysis shows that Papillion typically responds 2½ minutes faster than La Vista.
However La Vista decides to pay its firefighters, the move will be expensive. The city estimated that its own full-time paid department would cost at least $4 million.
In western Sarpy County, which is largely covered by the Gretna and Springfield departments, there is no movement toward paid firefighters.
Gretna and Springfield cover half the physical area of Sarpy County but only 15 percent of its population. Still, those areas are growing, and Gretna's fire district includes an area that's essentially suburban Omaha.
Take 168th Street north of Cornhusker Road. In that heavily populated suburban area, the paid Omaha Fire Department took over the area that had been served by the Millard Volunteer Fire Department on the east side of 168th.
But their neighbors on the west side wait several more minutes for Gretna volunteers to arrive. Overall, Gretna responds to calls in about seven minutes.
Maurice Anderson, who lives on the Gretna side of the line, said he and his family knew about the volunteer firefighters when they moved to that area — and that's part of what he liked about the area.
Anderson said he feels that he gets more of a voice outside of the city, while still being close enough to Omaha to enjoy its amenities. He said it's worth it to him to pay less in tax and potentially wait a few extra minutes for firefighters to arrive.
The fire chiefs in Gretna and Springfield said they are happy with how fast their firefighters arrive at emergencies.
Gretna Fire Chief Rod Buethe said he rarely hears complaints from the community, and people like the idea of volunteers providing fire services.
“People move out here and to Springfield to get that small-town feeling,” Buethe said.
Ken Willette, a retired fire chief who is a spokesman for the national fire protection group, said people in rural areas understand they're farther from fire stations. So volunteer firefighters put more of an emphasis on fire prevention, he said.
Plus, people enjoy seeing the volunteers — their friends and neighbors — helping in an emergency, the chiefs said.
“They think they get taken care of a lot better,” Springfield Fire Chief Chad Zimmerman said.
That's a sentiment that remains to a degree in Bellevue, where some people miss their volunteer fire department.
Bowes, the Papillion chief, said he expects western Sarpy County to see the same problems as the larger Sarpy cities in a few decades.
Sarpy County Board Chairman Jim Warren, a Gretna volunteer firefighter, said any change in Gretna fire service would be driven by citizen demand. But he's seen the number of calls increase over the 30 years he has served. Last year Gretna took 754 calls — the most it ever has.
“I remember when it hit 100 calls a year and we were, like, 'Oh, my gosh,'” he said.
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Response time trends
The median response time over five years for each Sarpy County fire department. Fire stations marked in black in each community.