Monday, September 20, 2010

Rescue US (Fire, Rescue and EMS): St. Louis' Proposes Firefighter Layoffs and Station Closings

Rescue US (Fire, Rescue and EMS): St. Louis' Proposes Firefighter Layoffs and Station Closings

St. Louis' Proposes Firefighter Layoffs and Station Closings

Cuts Affect 8 Companies and 70 Firefighters

Commentary by:
Lou Angeli

ST. LOUIS, MO (September 20, 2010) -- I am disheartened to learn that the Mayor and City Council are demanding layoffs of as many as 70 firefighters in the Gateway city. Such a move comes at a great loss to the community, and increases the risk to firefighters, who are already working at one of America's most dangerous jobs.

The thought of decreasing company staffing is preposterous. WHY? St. Louis is a major US city, with a heavy fire load, high risk structures, manufacturing and several Interstate highways, No disrespect intended, but It's not a county department which may see 1 or 2 working fires each year.

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, placing fire apparatus on the streets is what the public expects, despite the fact that many of the rigs are staffed with 3 and (unbelievably) 2 man companies.

Voices from the fire-side say government officials are using the economic downturn as an excuse to close companies and layoff firefighters. They say, and I agree, that city administrators have no intention of returning the lost companies to service once the economy is back on track.

What we're seeing is a risky trend, because city administrators are placing the public and firefighters at risk. The mere suggestion that 3 firefighters can initiate the attack on a working house fire shows a total ignorance of firefighting tactics, OSHA regulations and a blatant disregard for personal safety.

Like all large cities, the members of the St. Louis Fire Department are trained to operate as a four-man team -- officer, driver operator, pipeman and back-up man. When the first due quint arrives on the scene of a working fire, speed is of supreme importance. The company commander establishes command and sizes up the situation, while 2 firefighters advance their hoseline to the front door, mask up and prepare to enter. It's a smooth operation, like a well tuned play on the football field.

If you place only 3 firefighters in the same situation, the play goes awry and it's just a matter of time before the team looses field advantage. First of all, OSHA regulations prohibit the company officer from initiating an interior attack until 4 firefighters are assembled. That means waiting for the 2nd due company to arrive. Immediate rescue of trapped occupants is possible but at great risk to the firefighting crew. By neglecting the fire itself, precious time is lost and the blaze begins to travel from room to room -- home to home.

Shutting down companies is the cry of most city administrators. "It's a short term closing" they tell the community. "We'll reopen Station 5 as soon as we've got a balanced budget."

Does anyone recall when St. Louis had a balanced budget. These are quite simply empty promises, because firefighters know that when a station closes, firefighters and apparatus will never take occupancy in that building...ever again.

To maintain proper staffing in the St. Louis Fire Department -- or any department for that matter -- firefighter unions and advocates must take their story to the people. Citizens need to be provided with accurate information, so much so, that they can explain it to neighbors and family members as if they were firefighters themselves.

To arm the community with such information, immediately open a website which explains the dangers of downsizing a major metropolitan department. Follow that by organizing off-duty firefighters who connect with the community by speaking at neighborhood meetings, church groups and fraternal organizations. Perhaps support the speakers with a powerpoint presentation.

Local 22, Philadelphia Firefighters fought a long, hard battle when the current mayor proposed closing 7 companies 2 years ago. The communities surrounding the proposed closed stations were greatly supportive, yet the closings took place anyway. This past year, Philly's mayor initiated company "brownouts," the ultimate in public deceit. On the very first day, a young child lost his life in a fire because the first-due engine -- located just a few blocks away -- was locked behind closed station house doors.

The key to engaging the community to fight the firefighters' fight is to have all St. Louis citizens become standard bearers. As I recall, fall is a lovely time of the year in St. Louis, and to have a few thousand citizens gathered in a park, along with some of those great looking restored apparatus, make a perfect TV and photo op.

The message which needs to be sent to the Hall -- "We, the citizens of St. Louis, support our firefighters and demand that our safety be of prime concern." Fix your budget by dropping million dollar consultants, and city financed festivals and parades...not by placing my family at risk.

Ever since 9/11, firefighting has emerged year after year as America's most respected profession. Closing fire stations and placing firemen in unemployment lines is not how such respect and heroism is rewarded.

As a former St. Louisan, my thoughts and prayers are with the brother and sisters of the STLFD. My personal thanks to the members of Squad-2, where I became better acquainted with urban firefighting under the command of Captain Vince Wright. I am not only with you in spirit -- I'm ready to come out with a few other East Coast jakes to stand by your side.