There’s no dispute that economically strapped cities are facing large and difficult budget shortfalls. But when municipalities try to close the budget gap by shuttering firehouses and laying off firefighters, they are “playing Russian roulette,” says Fire Fighters (IAFF) President Harold Schaitberger.
Whatever you do that results in increasing response, you are absolutely playing Russian roulette.
According to a recent USA Today story, the layoff of 22 firefighters and reduction of operations at two Flint, Mich., fire stations may have played a role in a fatal April house fire.
Cutbacks took both a water truck and a ladder truck out of service at the firehouse where IAFF Local 352 Vice President Mark Kovach was on duty when a nearby house fire broke out. He and two colleagues sped to the fire in an equipment truck and arrived on the scene before fire trucks from a station farther away were able to get there. As USA Today reported:
Kovach says they arrived at a chaotic scene where neighbors were frantically directing attention to the second floor where a 47-year-old man with a heart condition was trapped.
With no ladder and no water, Kovach and a partner attempted, then quickly aborted, a rescue mission that nearly killed them, he said. When they dived out of the inferno, Kovach’s helmet and jacket were in flames, but there wasn’t even water to “put me out.”
Kovach now says that the department cutbacks, specifically the lack of water, slowed the unsuccessful rescue effort at the eastside home, where the homeowner was killed and three firefighters, including Kovach, suffered second-degree burns.
Last week, Muncie, Ind., laid off 32 firefighters and closed two fire stations. IAFF Local 1348 President Mike Whited says that puts the public in danger. He told the IndyChannel.com:
If we have a two-alarm fire at Ball State [University] or a house fire, we’re pretty much going to send all the men there, and there won’t be any left to respond to another house fire, another incident that we have.
In Orlando, Fla., IAFF Local 1365 launched a Facebook group to build public support to fight back against proposed budget cuts, including nearly 50 firefighter layoffs. The site, Save Your Orlando Firefighters, encourages people to contact Mayor Buddy Dyer and city commissioners to oppose these layoffs. The page has generated nearly 18,000 members.
Local 1365 President Steve Clelland says the city should tap some of its $100 million reserve fund to protect public safety but, instead, has some of that money earmarked for sports and arts facilities. He told the Orlando Sentinel:
If you’re not going to use your reserves on rainy days to save firefighters or police officers—or any other city service—you should just give the money back to the citizens.
At the national level, the IAFF has worked with Congress and the Obama administration to secure additional funding for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program and to allow SAFER funds to be used to prevent layoffs and service cutbacks. Last week, Congress approved the changes in the SAFER rules. Says Schaitberger:
The IAFF made it an urgent priority to pass this proposal to waive current requirements and allow SAFER grants to be used to save our members’ jobs and restore cuts made to staffing. With the passage of this waiver, fire departments can use this money to prevent layoffs and ensure adequate staffing.