Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fiscal Responsibility or Irresponsible Behavior?

Finding work as a firefighter -- a tough task for the next 10 years!

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.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Baker Implements Plans to Layoff Wilmington Firefighters

WILMINGTON, DE (April 23, 2009) -- Unions representing Wilmington employees are unwilling to make any additional wage concessions, and have rejected Mayor Baker's request to freeze wage increases for fiscal year 2010. Today Mayor James Baker responded by telling administrative personnel to identify personnel in 3 unions who will be laid off. His goal is 75 pink slips.

For the city Fire Department, which just recently began operating at its authorized strength, the loss of jobs, combined with members who are on extended sick leave (one with cancer) and a huge drop in overtime, most certainly will result in company closings. And I did use the plural.

These layoffs will come quickly, without city council's yea or nay. First to go will be the 8 members of WFD's 35th recruit class, who have only been on the job for a little over a month. One of those recruits, Ffr. Cameron Dorsey (Class President) saw very little action as he was seriosuly burned during a rescue and firefight on Adams Street.

I'm not planning to spend a great deal of time writing a response, because my last report was determined by fire management to be misleading and untrue. Unfortunately, today's events make my initial analysis far more conservative than what will now take place.


City Begins Process of Laying Off Unionized Employees After Union Presidents Reject Mayor’s Plan to Preserve Jobs and Benefits in FY 2010

Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker today directed Chief of Staff William Montgomery to begin the process of identifying and then notifying as many as 75 unionized City employees that they will be laid-off in the FY 2010 fiscal year beginning July 1.

The Mayor said he has now regrettably been forced to plan for lay-offs because the Presidents of AFSCME Locals 320, 1102, 1102B, Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #1 and International Association of Firefighters Local 1590 have rejected his request that the City’s union employees forego salary and step increases next fiscal year while maintaining their current jobs, salaries and benefits.

The Mayor and the Presidents of the unions were scheduled to meet on Tuesday, April 21, to discuss his request. Instead, the Presidents sent a letter to the Mayor dated April 17 cancelling the meeting and rejecting his plan to preserve the jobs and benefits of all City employees in exchange for the elimination FY 2010 salary and step increases.

Mayor Baker said even though the City will move forward now with layoffs of union employees, he remains ready and willing to further discuss with the union leaders the consequences of their decision.

When the Mayor presented his Fiscal Year 2010 Operating Budget to City Council in March, he announced that the City is struggling to close an estimated $20 million deficit.

To close the gap in anticipated revenue versus expenditures, the Mayor cut $15 million in proposed or planned City spending and requested $7.2 million in new taxes and fees for City residents and businesses. He also proposed no layoffs for City employees, but said all employees must forego salary and step pay increases equaling $2.5 million.

“It is not fair to ask taxpayers, who are already stressed in the current economic climate, for more money to operate the government; nor is it fair to ask our Department Directors to operate their units next year with severely reduced budgets across the board, only to have our City’s union leadership refuse to share in the sacrifices we all have to make to get the City out of a deep fiscal hole,” said Mayor Baker.

The Mayor said he will still move forward with part of his deficit-reduction decision by eliminating all salary and step increases for FY 2010 for non-union City employees. The Mayor said as a result, no non-union City employee will be laid-off.

Mayor Baker said it is unfortunate that the leaders of the City’s unions have forced his hand when it comes to laying off their members.

Via John Rago
Director of Communications and Policy Development
City of Wilmington

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Italy's FEMA arrives in L'Aquila within 8 hours


by: Lou Angeli

L’AQUILA, Italy (April 7, 2009) -- Nearly 5 DAYS since a 6.2 magnitude earthquake rocked the Abruzzo city of L'Aquila, rescuers are continuing to search for victims, who may be trapped deep in the debris of a university dorm.

The death toll has climbed past 250, another 50 citizens are missing, and 2000 have been injured, some critically. The Ministry of the Interior reports that 15,000 structures have been completely demolished, and the number of homeless is placed at 30,000.

To make a tragic situation even worse, the area has been hit with dozens of aftershocks, the most recent registering a 5.6 magnitude.

Unlike disasters here in the states, the press won’t be reporting on delays in emergency personnel and supplies. Why? They were on location within hours. How did Italian emergency responders mount such a quick response? Simple. The lack of red tape and a damned good preplan.

According to David Alexander, who teaches emergency planning in Europe, the Italian government designed their Disaster Response plan around a "key component found in every province and locale"…the Fire-Rescue service or the Vigili Del Fuoco.

The Vigili Del Fuoco is much different than fire departments here in the states. In Italy, the fire-rescue service is a single, national entity and is paramilitary in design.. So whether a firefighter is assigned to a small station in the Alps, or working a big city like Naples, tactics, command and apparatus are identical.

Comapre that to the states where we have 31,000 agencies with 31,000 different commanders. And even though most of America's Fire-Rescue-EMS service have integrated Incident Command into the operations, our system continues to focus on mitigation of the incident, then followed by caring for those who are homeless.

“In America, we instruct our citizens to be prepared to remain self sufficient for at least 72 hours.” say Dr. Francis Howard of Columbia University. “That concept proved itself to be a disaster during the hours and days following Katrina.”

“When the disaster presents itself in Italy,’ says Howard, ‘the unified response system kicks in immediately.”

The Italian system, known as the Augustus Plan, takes our Incident Command system a step further by automatically integrating municipal emergency agencies – like police and EMS – into the Fire-Rescue system.

The most interesting component of the entire system is Augustus’ ability to place thousands of well-trained, disaster responders on the scene in just a few hours. When the quake struck the Abruzzo region early Monday morning, the Italian goverment declared a national emergency thus authorizing the Civil Protection Department to mobilize a substantial -- and immediate -- response. More than 100 volunteer search and rescue teams were deployed, some of whom assisted in the search and rescue effort, but most of whom began to erect temporary housing, provide meals and tend to the immediate needs of the citizens.
On the Vigili del Fuoco national website you can follow emergency operations in L’Abruzzo with updates on an hourly basis. As of 0600 hours 9 April 2009, the following resources and staffing were operating at dozens of disaster scenes.

- Command has divided the disaster region into four sectors, from 4 base camps.
- 169 senior officers
- In addition to 1000 firefighters on scene, another 2650 are responding.
- 90 specialized recovery teams from 6 surrounding regions
- 48 Volunteer First-Responder Teams of 100
- 6 Urban Search and Rescue Teams
- There are 1,000 Engines or Tankers on scene.
- 24 Ladder Trucks
- 30 Rescue Vehicles
- 6 Cranes
- 4 Bell 412 helicopters
- 6 Agusta EMS helicopters
- 3 Satellite Transmission Vehicles

You can keep track of the progress online at the National Corps of Vigili del Fuoco website.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Ladder 62: Back in Service

Rescue Me returns to FX

by: Lou Angeli

NEW YORK, NY (March 4, 2009) -- Cable hit "Rescue Me" is back with an expanded fifth season. The firefighting drama begins airing on Tuesday, April 7, during FX’s 10pm time slot. This season the show will present 22 one-hour episodes -- a true bounty for a cable drama.

The season 4 closer was powerful, bringing closure to various sub-plots with Leary’s character, Tommy Gavin, apparently being tossed from the FDNY. Even though "Rescue Me" brought in huge audiences, it is an expensive program to produce, and my first thought was that the series had run its course. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Cable’s most popular drama series has been absent from the screen since the season 4 finale which aired in late summer 2007. There was no talk about a 5th season until the Writers’ Guild Strike was settled, and even though Denis Leary and his partner, Peter Tolan, had much of a 13 episode Season 5 outlined, production was postponed.

With the 5th season announcement came an added surprise, Not only would the series return in spring of 2009, FX had ordered 22 new one-hour episodes, a first among original cable programs, which typically only have a 13 installment run.

Concerned that the unusually long delay between seasons might result in the loss of audience numbers, Apostle Pictures agreed to produce ten short mini episodes, which aired on FX during the show’s normal summer time slot, and drew huge audiences on the viral web circuit. Seemingly, every fireman's blog contains a link to at least one of the webisodes.

New to the series this season is actor Michael J. Fox. The 47-year-old actor - who suffers from Parkinson's disease - will play a wheelchair-confined love interest for Denis Leary’s on-screen ex, Janet, played by Andrea Roth.

Of all the firefighting dramas ever produced, "Rescue Me" is most like the real thing. Leary treats the firehouse for what it is -- a family! Kooky at times, emotionally distraught at others, but always there for one another when they step off the rig to do battle with the beast.

"Rescue Me" has humor, conflict and an identifiable antagonist (Gavin himself), all of which are essential for making a successful dramatic series. In developing this series Team Apostle has discovered the secret formula producingh firefighting dramas.

Without knowing it, Leary and his staff have paid firefighters the greatest tribute by reminding us that life and family are precious and can never be replaced. My hope is that others in our ranks will recognize this tip and take the program’s message to heart.
Partial Cast: (from IMDB)

"Tommy Gavin" -- Denis Leary
"Mike Silletti" -- Mike Lombardi
"Sean Garrity" -- Stephen Pasquale
"Janet Gavin" -- Andrea Roth
"Franco Rivera" -- Daniel Sunjata
"Lt. Kenny Shea" -- John Scurti
"Sheila Keefe" -- Callie Thomas
"Jimmy Keefe" -- James McCaffrey

Official FX Website,
Sony Pictures Website


Thursday, April 02, 2009

Love Affair With Buffalo's Firefighters Ends

Citizens demand that Firefighter overtime be eliminated.
by: Lou Angeli

BUFFALO, NY (April 2, 2009) -- Crooks, the millionaires club and greedy old men. Nope, these aren’t remarks about the scoundrels who have set this nation’s economy in a tailspin. Rather, they are comments being voiced by the citizens of Buffalo, NY about city’s firefighters, who find themselves defending the fact that they accepted $10 million last year in overtime.

Although I'm not a Buffalo resident, our small East Coast Department, along with cities like Phoenix, Columbia (SC), Houston and dozens of others have financial woes similar to those being experienced in Buffalo. But in Buffalo, the specific complaint deals with the amount of overtime that firefighters are offered in order to keep the city’s firehouses running.

It's quite interesting to read blog responses of citizens as they rip away at the members of the Buffalo Fire Department. Seemingly, many of them equate the current overtime situation, and the firefighters themselves, with the likes of Bernie Maddof, Bear Stearns and AIG. As I mentioned in an OP-ED, firefighters punch a time clock, they don't sign multi-million dollar cons.

Like most other union organized departments in this nation, Buffalo FD operates with a contract, part of which calls for the total authorized personnel required to run the department in its current form and function.

However -- and this is the fact that The Buffalo News fails to reveal -- BFD is about 153 firefighters short of that authorized number. Only 613 firefighters currently work in Buffalo's firehouses, however the authorized strength is established at 766.

The current authorized strength came after deep, deep cuts in the BFD, which began back in 1978 and continued for nearly 20 years. Today, the department, its tactics and operations are based on the 766 number, which both the commissioner and chief say is needed to properly protect the city and its citizens, while maintaining minimum staffing requirements. So no one should be surprised, especially the city's financial team, that its necessary to call in off-duty firefighters, on an overtime basis, to cover empty positions left by 153 missing firemen.

If Boston’s citizens have a gripe with firefighters, and the amount that they earn through overtime, they need to take direct aim at the city administration – not front line firefighters. It has been 8 years since the city graduated a recruit class, so the real problem is not overtime, but rather the fact that the city has failed to hire additional firefighters.

The sure fire method for lowering overtime is to hire those firefighters (or some portion thereof) that the city promised in its contract with IAFF Local 282. In our faltering economy, the new jobs would be a much needed boost for young men and women, many of whom are already trained for the position and chomping at the bit to help the public.

There are dozens of ideas that can help reduce operational costs without placing risk to the public and firefighters themselves. But such interaction requires an open line of communications among fire administration, the union and the citizens themselves.

Instead of griping at the city's firefighters, perhaps Buffalo residents, who are the most angered, might consider serving on a community advisory committee, which would offer advice on how overtime could be reduced without affecting the true mission of the BFD -- saving lives and limiting property damage.