Dateline USA (April 28, 2009) -- Firefighting by definition is a dangerous job. As a fire officer, you carefully consider the situation before allowing those under your command to run into a burning building. You must be certain that they can make a real difference in someone’s life. But “running in” takes on new meaning especially when you’re one of only a few firefighters on the scene.
The concept of operating at a blaze with a handful of personnel is foreign to many firefighters, both career and volunteer. But during these hard times, more and more city administrators are looking toward the public safety sector to make cuts in order to make ends meet. To them, getting several apparatus to the fire is what the public expects, despite the fact that many of the rigs are staffed with 2 and 1 man companies.
See Keokuk, IA Fire Department, December, 1999.
You heard it right, a driver and partner to make up the supply line, advance the attack line, make forcible entry, and attempt rescues until the 2nd due company rolls in with additional help. Hopefully, the “2nd due” company, staffed by yet another 2 man crew, will arrive quickly. It’s a procedure that troubles firefighters and union officials, and when it tragically hits home, the citizen public will be in an uproar.
Authorized Staffing vs. Overtime
Google the term “fire department layoffs,” and you’ll instantly find dozens of current references to staffing reductions in career departments, large and small, nationwide. Why layoff firefighters or any members of Public Safety? Well, according to many city administrators, the layoffs are necessary to offset the extraordinary amount of money spent to cover firefighter overtime.
Voices from the fire-side say government officials are using the economic downturn as an excuse to close companies and layoff firefighters, with no intention of returning the lost companies to service once the economy is back on track.
The overtime issue has become so controversial, that in some cities like Buffalo, NY, citizens rebuke firefighters, suggesting that excessive overtime payouts are an abuse of taxpayer dollars. But if you dig a tiny bit deeper into the story, you’ll learn the real reason why overtime is needed and justified.
With an authorized staffing level of 766, BFD currently employs only 631 uniformed personnel. So at the beginning of each shift, dozens of positions remain vacant and must be filled with off duty firefighters, in order to properly staff the city’s 19 Engines, 9 Ladder Trucks and Heavy Rescue Squad. Thankfully, some taxpayers now get it, and have figured out the solution on their own.
“If the city hired the additional firefighters,’ one Buffalo resident notes, ‘their combined salaries and benefits would total less than the money spent on overtime.”
Hardest hit during the current recession are small, career and combination departments, where proper staffing is always an issue. Take a city like Mansfield, Ohio, where the fire department operates 6 Engines, 2 Ladders and 3 EMS Units. Under the NFPA’s minimum staffing guidelines, the city should employ 3 shifts of at least 40 firefighters to cover the current positions.
However, the actual number of firefighters on Mansfield’s roster is just 103, and the Mayor has promised to lay off an additional 25 firefighters. With those members gone, companies would be staffed with just 1 or 2 firefighters, which some assert is a disaster waiting to happen.
Be prepared – Because we’re not coming in!
To his credit, Mansfied Chief John Harsch has notified city officials, the press, and the general public to expect a lower level of service from his fire department, if the layoffs take place.
"We'll cease being...an interior attack fire department and go to an exterior fire department to protect exposures.” Harsch told reporters. “It won't be safe for the firefighters to go in the house and we will not risk personnel for property.”
Harsch, who was never notified of the potential layoffs added, “I would recommend (that) citizens have a few working smoke detectors if they don't already."
With so few firefighters, Mansfield would be forced to renege on long standing mutual aid pacts with departments surrounding the city.
“I have a responsibility to help (the citizens) here,” Harsch said. “It’s gonna be different. Our goal in this is to figure out how to work everyday with less.”
Not far away, in another central Ohio city, IAFF Local 474 representing the City of Elyria’s firefighters, have launched a public service website entitled “Elyria At Risk.” It’s a great template for other IAFF locals to emulate, in order to explain to citizens how cuts in companies and staffing affect their safety.
Elyria Fire Department’s authorized staffing was 88 firefighters, and until recently operated from four fire stations with 3 shifts of 24, plus additional daytime administrative personnel. In recent weeks, 25 firefighters were laid off, leaving just 14 firefighters per shift to protect the community. A tough task, since most fire experts agree that to fight a working, one-alarm house fire,17 personnel are required. Once on the scene, Elyria’s firefighters can expect no back-ups, no fresh troops not even a RIT TEAM.
View graph depicting effectiveness of one-man vs. 4-person staffing.
Some other cities, which have been targeted by the fiscal axe include; Spokane Fire Department (24+ layoffs), Woonsocket, RI (22 layoffs), Monroe, MI (1/2 of the department to be laid off), Clifton, NJ (17 layoffs, 1 station closing), and the FDNY, which is facing layoffs totaling over 5% of its 12,000 member force.
What we're seeing is a risky trend, because city administrators are placing the public and firefighters at risk. The mere suggestion that 5 or 6 firemen can mitigate a working house fire shows a total ignorance of firefighting tactics and a blatant disregard for personal safety.
"We need to reduce staffing and be fiscally responsible." one mayor said. If there is a significant fire he added, "...we'll use neighboring volunteer departments for mutual aid." However, most volunteer chiefs acknowledge that their own staffing is way down, and what resources they do have are dedicated to protecting their local alarm district.
Like the Ohio fire chief says, check the batteries in your smoke detector, because we won't be able to come in and get you.