When Jim McSwain looks at a map of Lawrence, he sees red.
Red around the periphery of town. Red stabbing into the heart of Lawrence. Red, because those parts of town aren't quickly reached by Lawrence-Douglas County Fire & Medical troops.
Red, then, because it's the color of danger.
"I'm just scared we're going to have something that's going to occur, and it's going to be bad for all of us," McSwain, the department's chief, said last week.
The red zones on McSwain's map are the areas of town firefighters think will take them longer than four minutes to reach from their stations. Lawrence has sprawled outward in the last two decades, taking the city limits farther from the security of the city's four fire stations.
"We're at the point where we're gambling with people's safety," McSwain said.
Remedying the situation will cost money. To eliminate most of the red from the map, Lawrence will have to spend $3.6 million to build a fire station and $3.6 million more to move another.
And those costs don't include the price of staffing the new station, or buying a "quint" truck to equip it.
Lawrence city commissioners are caught in what they say is City Hall's worst financial crisis in decades. But they say they may have to respond to McSwain's fire alarm despite the costs.
The alternatives -- the loss of homes, businesses and lives -- could be even more costly.
"I think," Commissioner Mike Rundle said, "that we're compelled to move ahead on that."
This is the voluntary standard of the National Fire Protection Assn.: That 90 percent of the time, a city's fire crews will reach the scene of an emergency within four minutes.
According to the department's last study, Lawrence crews hit the scene in four minutes only about 72 percent of the time.
Association officials said they didn't know how Lawrence stacked up against other fire departments around the state and nation. But McSwain isn't happy.
The red zones on the map, he said, were calculated with the belief fire crews can travel 1.5 miles from one of the department's four stations in four minutes.
"In some cases, we're traveling three miles," he said. "That's double what it should be. And that just allows a fire to grow."
McSwain wouldn't say whether those distances already had caused problems for the department. The city's last fire fatality, in February 2002, came just inside a white zone, at 1002 W. 24th St.
"I can't specifically answer that," he said. "But you can look to the west and center part (of town) and see we have some tricky areas."
That came as news to Alan Cowles, president of the West Lawrence Neighborhood Assn.
"I think we'd have to be concerned if there's inadequate response time in this area," he said. "We're pleased they're looking at that."
Cowles hedged, however, on whether he and his neighbors would be willing to pay more in taxes for increased fire protection.
"I don't know how people out here would respond to that," he said. "I suppose it would depend more than anything on the size of the increase."
Fixing the problem
The last time a fire station was added in the city was 1982.
"I don't have to tell you how much the city has grown since then," McSwain said.
Lawrence population topped 80,000 in the 2000 census, up about 50 percent from 53,000 in 1980. In the same period, Douglas County population increased by nearly 48 percent, to about 100,000 people.
In response, the city in 1994 created a fire station master plan that envisioned moving two of the four fire stations and building a new one to more efficiently cover the city. Only one part of the plan has been completed: Station No. 2 was moved last year from 1941 Haskell Ave. to 2128 Harper St. The station cost $1.45 million to build.
"It helped our response time to the east, where we have new residences and the business park," McSwain said, referring to burgeoning east-side development and the East Hills Business Park.
Under McSwain's plan, the city would move Station No. 4 from 2819 Stonebarn Terrace to Wakarusa Drive north of Clinton Parkway, with construction costs of $3.6 million. Building the new fifth station, at 21st and Iowa streets, would cost the same amount, he said.
Kansas University is so interested in having a fire station close by that the KU Endowment Association is leasing the 21st and Iowa land to the city for $1 a year.
Some firefighters would be moved around, but nine new employees would be needed for the station at an annual cost of at least $420,000 a year.
Trucks, ambulances and other equipment also would be shifted, but the city would still have to buy a new quint truck, which carries equipment to do the work of both a pumper and a ladder truck. Its cost: $475,000.
But construction and relocation would put firefighters within quick reach of nearly every part of the city, McSwain said.
"Travel time is important," he said. Longer responses, McSwain said, means a victim "suffers longer with health or injury problems."
Commissioners will take public comment on all matters relating to the city's 2004 budget at their next meeting, 6:45 p.m. Tuesday in City Hall, Sixth and Massachusetts streets.