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News 8 Investigates: Because seconds count

Fire Department falling short of response goals

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) - Firefighters are there when we need them in times of emergencies, but in some areas of La Crosse, the time it takes to respond to those emergencies is falling short of the Fire Department's goal.

The La Crosse Fire Department has four stations throughout the city.

Those stations are located at 5th Avenue South, Monitor Street, Losey Boulevard and Gillette Street.

All of the stations have been around since 1967, and Fire Station 4, on Gillette Street, was built back in 1941.

The Fire Department and city leadership openly admit that the stations will need to be replaced over the next 25 years, but the location of those new stations is still up for debate.

In the past, there have also been discussions about adding a fifth fire station on the south side.

That's because in portions of the city, the Fire Department is not meeting its response time goal, and that could mean the difference between life and death.

Day after day, members of the La Crosse Fire Department are saving lives.

"In our business, seconds mean everything,” Assistant Chief Mark Amann said.

But those seconds are actually part of a bigger goal set by the department itself.

"We'll have a travel time goal of four minutes. That's our benchmark. That's our goal,” Amann said.

As part of their accreditation process, the Fire Department underwent a statistical analysis in 2015 to see if it was meeting that response time goal.

"The one area that's lacking is that southeast part of town when we have to go east of the railroad tracks,” Amann said.

Aman said trains force the department to take a specific route when addressing emergencies in the southeastern portion of La Crosse.

"When we leave on Station 3, we always take the State Road overhead to get over the tracks,” Amann said. “That's what really slows us down. We can never take a chance there's a train going across one of those crossings."

During busy times during the day, the response time can be longer.

"We really get hung up on traffic on Losey Boulevard when we approach Mormon Coulee Road, and when we hit Mormon Coulee Road heading south,” Amann said. If you've driven it, you know the traffic, and traffic obviously slows a firetruck down."

Through their analysis, the department developed a map showing the response times throughout the city over a five-year period.

The data shows the area south of State Road and east of Losey Boulevard, which had over 2,000 emergency calls, did not meet the four-minute response time at least 84 percent of the time.

"There is a concern from a lot of people,” Councilman Roger Christians, of La Crosse common council, said.

Christians has lived on the south side of La Crosse for nearly 15 years.

"That part has grown a lot, because when we moved out there we were the seventh house in our development, and now there's over 50 in our development,” Christians said. “Across the road, two other new developments sprung up after we moved out there that have hundreds more residents."

With a growing area underserved by the Fire Department, he's worried any emergency could turn deadly.

"It's difficult to get out there from Losey Boulevard to the furthest out there in that time frame,” Christians said.

To address the issue, the city's data analysis also looked at the ideal location for new fire stations. One of those locations is at the corner of 33rd Street and Mormon Coulee Road.

Both the city and the Fire Department agree a new south side station is necessary, but with all the current fire stations aging, the city is debating whether to replace existing stations first, or build a new south side station.

"Fire stations are obviously very important, but we don't have $27 million sitting laying around just to say, 'Yep let's just go ahead and fix these things now. Right? So we really have to come up with a game plan,” said La Crosse Mayor Tim Kabat.

"We need to sit down with our city planners and our council members and determine our highest priorities: Which station is in the worst shape? Which station do we do first?” Amann said.

Every day, firefighters serve and protect to keep us safe.

"There is no higher function of what cities perform than public safety,” Kabat said.

Time is critical for the Fire Department.

"There's used to be an old saying in the fire service that a fire would double every minute,” Amann said.

The Fire Department says building a new station in the city's underperforming areas is essential.

"We all know seconds, seconds mean everything in lifesaving situations,” Amann said.
The south side fire station is part of ongoing debate on whether the city should have five fire stations or four.

A city report estimates the cost to update and build five stations would be $28 million.

"Ultimately its going to be what the council decides, including whether they want to do five stations with 12 additional firefighters, or keep the four stations, but perhaps reconfigure locations,” Kabat said.

The mayor introduced legislation at last week's Common Council meeting to create a task force to prioritize the building projects for the Fire Department.

The Fire Department says it could take up to 25 years to replace and build new fire stations in the city.

Building the south side fire station alone would cost up to $4 million.

The mayor is in favor at this time  of having four stations.

The Fire Department, on the other hand belives having five stations would bring the best coverage of the area.

But the data analysis shows that whether the city has four or five stations, a south side fire station is necessary, and both groups say building that one should be a priority, given the response time issues.

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