A conversation with Fire Chief Shaun Coffey on projects, personnel, the pandemic and more
photo by: Mike Yoder
Almost two years into his tenure as the permanent chief of Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical, Shaun Coffey says he knows his role well: To make sure first responders have the proper equipment and resources to serve city and county residents.
“They do all the hard work; I just make sure they have what they need to do that effectively,” Coffey said.
That hasn’t always been easy. Since Coffey took over — first as an interim chief in 2018 and then as the permanent chief in 2019 — the department has had to respond to major weather-related disasters and a global pandemic.
Recently, Coffey spoke to the Journal-World about the department’s pandemic response, as well as some of the projects it’s working on and the concerns the department has with equipment and personnel.
Journal-World: Now that you have a few years under your belt — as interim and now permanent fire chief — how do you feel your tenure has been going?
Coffey: I believe they are going really well. It has been an interesting time as I’ve been the fire chief. We’ve had a lot of what I would call “career experiences” — we’ve had the tornado in 2018, the flash flooding last year and now we have a 100-year pandemic.
Through it all, (personnel) membership has remained strong and not missed any time at all. We’ve navigated through this pandemic really well, and I’m extremely proud of the work they’ve done.
LJW: How has the pandemic affected your operations?
Coffey: The biggest thing is we’ve been here since day one of the pandemic. We’re here no matter what, even through the pandemic.
We’ve adjusted how we’ve done business. We were always proactive for personal protective equipment when out on calls, but with COVID-19 that required adjustments. We’ve installed additional precautionary measures, as far as making sure we always had eye protection on, wore gowns and had masks.
In the fire station, the firefighters were diligent about checking their temperatures twice a day, and we were cleaning the stations twice a day. We were always monitoring one another, and we did those things in an effort to keep COVID-19 from impacting our firefighters and their families.
LJW: Were there any strengths or weaknesses shown because of the pandemic?
Coffey: The members of our organization were our true strength — their flexibility, versatility and reliability. Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to get through this.
I was also impressed with the City of Lawrence, Douglas County, (LMH Health) and Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health coming together in Unified Command to help our community. That was a big game changer for our community, and I was extremely proud to see that happen.
Some of the weaknesses go back to (our personnel). As we looked at some of our processes, particularly as it related to patient care, maybe we weren’t protecting ourselves as well as we should have. We implemented some measures that provide for better protection of our personnel as well as the community members.
LJW: Are there any major projects you are working on for the department?
Coffey: We’ve completed a couple of projects recently, and we have some more on the way.
One of them was building a new training tower at our training center at 1941 Haskell (Avenue). That’s nearing completion. The tower itself is completed, but we were able to put a fence around it to ensure the safety of the public. We’re extremely excited about that.
We did a recent remodeling of Station No. 1 (located at 746 Kentucky St.). That was a long process. Our membership showed their perseverance having to use a trailer on Eighth Street for a couple years in extremely tight quarters. They were able to withstand the time, and now we have a wonderful facility there at Station No. 1.
We have a couple of things as we move forward. We’ll be starting our accreditation process for the fourth time. We’ve been accredited three times, the last one in 2018. We’re extremely proud of that. The accreditation process is important to us because it’s about continuous improvement. It helps us stay dynamic and keeps us aware of what’s going on in our organization.
We have a station optimization analysis (a comprehensive study of the organization’s operations) that we hope to release this spring. This will be the first time this has been done since 1996, so almost 25 years. As you know, Lawrence has changed a lot since 1996.
We have a 2040 infill development plan from the City of Lawrence that’s going on right now. We’re in the people business. If we continue to grow, whether that’s vertically or out horizontally, that creates more call volume.
We are also currently working on a review of our EMS agreement with Douglas County … We are looking forward to the results of that. We think that will bring forward a lot of good processes to improve the relationship we have with Douglas County, which is such an important partnership to provide EMS to all of Douglas County.
LJW: The Lawrence Police Department just moved to a new facility. Is there anything you think the LDCFM needs in terms of facilities?
Coffey: First, I’ll say the City of Lawrence, City Commission and County Commission have always been very supportive of our organization. The police department needed a new facility, and I’m happy for them.
As we continue to look at it and the station optimization analysis comes out, we’ll be looking at things related to our total response time (which includes preparing to respond to a call in the station and then the amount of time to travel to a call). It continues to increase. We’re trying to use technologies to reduce that any way we can.
But unfortunately, we see our travel time continue to elongate. In 2008, our travel time was about four minutes and 37 seconds. In 2020, it’s six minutes and 21 seconds. NFPA (the National Fire Protection Association) identifies best practice to be four minutes.
We’re working with the emergency communications center to try to reduce call processing time. But that could also impact us in the future when we think of station design. Do we need to go to a different station design to get to the (firetrucks) quicker? That will play into it as well.
That elongation of travel time is a concern for us, and we are seeing an increasing call volume. In 2011, we ran about 9,000 calls. In 2019, we had 13,000 calls.
We’ll continue to work on ways to try to maximize our times to get out of stations. The analysis will provide some guidance where additional stations might be needed in the future.
LJW: How is the department on replacing firetrucks?
Coffey: Currently, we operate out of Truck 5, (which) has (an aerial platform) on it and a rescue truck that carries a large tool box. (That truck) is our largest apparatus in the city and the heaviest, but unfortunately it requires the greatest amount of maintenance.
We are going with a new deployment model that is based on having a fire engine and something different called a “tiller truck.” This will allow us to have much greater access. It will have (a ladder) and carry a small amount of hose complement and pump on it, if needed. Its main mission will be for aerial and elevated water streams as well as technical rescue equipment that will be carried on it.
Truck 5 runs on all medical calls in its district, so it’s a big, heavy truck responding and it has a lot of wear and tear on it. We’ll be replacing that with a smaller, nimble and more responsive unit that won’t have the wear and tear on it. We expect to see reduced maintenance costs with this new deployment model.
In our partnership with the county, we’ve been provided two new medic units every year. Those are very heavily used apparatus within our fleet. Douglas County has been very supportive in replacing (them), so we’ve always had reliable, efficient equipment to respond on a moment’s notice.
LJW: When you were hired as chief, you mentioned hiring and retaining personnel was an issue. How have you done in that regard during your tenure?
Coffey: One of the things we’ve changed in our organization is moving our extra-board system. This is a system that had been in existence since the 1980s. It was a system where we hire people and they work part-time in order to get a full-time position.
The consensus of the membership who brought this forward was that it was hurting the number of applicants we had. This past fall, we hired our first class of new firefighters, who came on right into full-time positions.
Also with that, we put a new requirement on that if you are not a paramedic when you are hired, you have to become a paramedic within three years. That will help us with our paramedic shortage. In the next three years, we will be adding 20 new paramedics to our organization.
We continue to work on our physical health within our organization. We also continue to keep looking at cancer prevention. That’s always a large concern for us. Incidence of cancer in firefighters is higher than the general public.
We’ve been able to acquire a second set of bunker gear so they always have one clean set of gear to put on when they come to the station. They used to wear that gear over and over again, and you can think of all the carcinogens in there right next to their skin. Now we’ve been able to remove those, and we have (gear washing stations).
But one of the big things we are seeing is mental health. We were able to start a program called Responder Employee Assistance Program, which is modeled after a program that LPD has. If somebody is having a mental health emergency and would like assistance, it provides them the opportunity to seek that.
We’re really focusing on mental health in our organization. Our folks see and deal with a lot of things the normal public doesn’t have to deal with, so it’s important we provide them with the support so they can continue to do outstanding work.
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