Fire chief seeks payroll tax to fund 14 firefighters, cut response times

When fire chief Mike Niblock’s wife passed out and stopped breathing, it took emergency responders three minutes to arrive after 911 was called.

“That seemed like an eternity,” he said during the city of Salem’s May 3 budget committee meeting.

Many others in Salem have had to wait longer. Last year, almost one in three 911 callers – 5,300 Salemites – had to wait longer than five and a half minutes for help to come.

Salem fire leaders are hoping a proposed payroll tax will allow them to cut response times by hiring additional firefighters, even as the department is struggling to recruit for positions it has open. 

Fire response times are far short of the standard the city council adopted in 1995, which says first responders should be on scene within five and a half minutes 85% of the time. Salem is also below the national standard set by the National Fire Protection Association, which says firefighters should respond within five minutes to 90% of calls.

“(Response times) will continue to increase unless we add response resources to our system,” said fire department spokesman Brian Carrara in an email to Salem Reporter.

“Waiting longer than 5 ½ minutes during a critical medical emergency can mean the difference between life and death and significant additional property damage during a fire incident.” The human brain begins to die from a lack of oxygen around the six minute mark.

Fire leaders want to hire an additional 18 employees, who would operate a new fire station slated for construction in 2028 and support commercial flights at the Salem Municipal Airport.

The majority of new employees would be funded by a proposed payroll tax, while the new airport positions are included in the base 2024 city budget, which the city council will vote on by the end of June.

The fire department’s budget was $46.6 million this year, not including costs to operate the regional Willamette Valley Communications Center. In 2022, the department received a total of 31,319 calls, 22,611 for medical help and 684 for fires.

For 2024, the city’s proposed fire department budget is $52.3 million. Fire leaders are hoping a payroll tax would add $6.5 million to that total, allowing them to hire additional firefighters.

Target response times across Salem have fallen. Last year, the department hit the five-and-a-half minute target 60.9% of the time, down from 74.3%  of the time in 2017.

Salem’s population has increased 16% since 2010, and fire department calls have increased 87% in the same period due to an aging population and more medical calls related to people who are homeless, Niblock said during the budget meeting.

Since 2013, the department’s budget has grown from $24.7 million to $46.6 million. But staffing has remained flat at 43 responders on duty per day: eleven fire engines, two ladder trucks and two battalion chiefs on duty.

Carrara said that department expenses have increased for personnel, materials and services due to inflation, rising costs, and maintaining an aging fleet. The department recently ordered new fire trucks to replace the fleet using bond funds.

Existing staff are burnt out, Niblock said during the budget meeting.

“Firefighters are a tactical athlete. So they have to be in peak physical condition, they have to jump up out of bed at 3 o’clock in the morning, go to a house fire, go to a commercial fire, go to a heart attack, deal with a gunshot victim,” he said.

Firefighters work 24 hour shifts, and in recent years have been asked to pull overtime and mandatory extra shifts up to 96 hours – four days in a row – where any sleep they get at the station comes with the possibility of being woken up at any time for a call.

The stations have added a calmer sounding tone rather than a bell, to try to reduce stress. 

The fire department has 20 vacancies in already budgeted positions, which Carrera said comes from a national shortage of new paramedics coming into the system. Chemeketa Community College has 24 slots at its paramedic school but only 10 students in its most recent class, he told Salem Reporter in January.

The fire department is recruiting lateral and entry-level firefighters through June 20th, he said, and expects to fill all the vacancies by December. Carrara said the department has a recruiting committee who engages with community college paramedic programs and job fairs, and the department also seeks applicants through social media and hiring websites.

Meanwhile, to try to improve efficiency, the department has cut the number of people it sends to calls, installed a new computer dispatch system that locates and sends the nearest unit to the call, and stopped responding to less urgent calls, Carrara said.

The proposed 2024 city budget includes another increase to the monthly operations fee which would show up on utility bills starting July 1. If approved, the fee would add $5.50 per month to residential homes, $4.40 per month for multi-family units and $26.51 for industrial, institutional and commercial properties. The city already increased that rate in January 2022 and again last January. 

But the fire positions it adds at the airport won’t improve response time.

The majority of additional staffing would come from a proposed payroll tax which could go to voters for approval in November.

City leaders are contemplating three payroll tax levels which would cost a Salem worker making the city’s median income of $29.90 an hour between $25.39 and $34.20 a month.

The proposed payroll tax options would allocate $4.2 million to maintain current service levels, and provide an additional $2.3 million to hire 14 more people.

The payroll tax also proposes $10.5 million for the Salem Police Department to hire around a dozen officers and expand the homeless outreach team.

Without additional funding, the department will not be able to operate two planned new fire stations to be built starting in 2028. Purchasing land for the stations was included in the infrastructure package Salem voters approved in 2022 at a cost of $7 million each.

“We’re not going to build a station we can’t staff. We tried that once, it didn’t work out so well,” Niblock said, referring to west Salem’s Station 11 which was built  with bond funding in 2006, then was shut down from 2012 to 2019 due to a lack of funding for employees, according to the Statesman Journal.

“Our back’s up against the wall here, and this is a critical decision point,” Niblock said.

The city council has until July 1 to adopt its budget for the next year. The council meets June 12 and 26 at 6 p.m. in the city council chambers.

To comment remotely, sign up on the city website between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. the day of the meeting.

For written comments, email [email protected] before 5 p.m. the day of the meeting, or on paper to the city recorder’s office at the Civic Center, 555 Liberty St. S.E., Room 225. Include a statement indicating the comment is for the public record.

Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.

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Abbey McDonald joined the Salem Reporter in 2022. She previously worked as the business reporter at The Astorian, where she covered labor issues, health care and social services. A University of Oregon grad, she has also reported for the Malheur Enterprise, The News-Review and Willamette Week.