Recession Taking a Toll on the Fire Service


From layoffs and threats of layoffs to pension fights and brownouts — all in the name of saving money — the nation's career firefighters are under assault by the unrelenting economic recession. Firefighters are enduring a withering attack on the rank and file that some say is unprecedented.

"Thousands of firefighters have gone from the frontlines to the unemployment lines since December 2007, the unofficial beginning of the recession," said Harold Schaitberger, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), in the July/August issue of Journal of the International Association of Fire Fighters. He also said "firefighters and other public employees are the new scapegoats of mayors, governors and corporate opportunists" who seek to misrepresent the compensation career firefighters receive.

The nation's headlines document the chilling movement from frontlines to unemployment lines as community leaders try to balance municipal budgets on the backs of firefighters.

In November, voters in Montgomery County, MD, will consider an ambulance user fee that is designed to fill a $14 million budget shortfall, according to News 4 Washington. If it doesn't pass, leaders are working on a budget that could lead to layoffs of firefighters.

The San Jose Mercury News in California reports that eight Long Beach fire stations are now affected by "rolling brownouts," which means that one station will lose an engine on a rotating basis each day.

In Phoenixville, PA, a steering committee has recommended three fire companies consolidate in the near future to save overlapping expenses and help with recruiting and retention, according to the Coatesville Daily Local News.

Daily firefighter staffing in the Cohoes, NY, Fire Department was recently reduced from six to five, which results in the closing of one station, according to the Albany Times-Union. The city normally staffs each platoon with eight or nine firefighters, but often the department works with six because of vacation and sick time.

The newspaper Press of Atlantic City in Pleasantville, NJ, reported that city leaders are moving forward with a plan to cut 30 firefighters and 40 police officers after a meeting with union representatives yielded no progress on contract talks.

In Florida, Jacksonville firefighters rejected the city's pay-cut plan, according to the Florida Times-Union, a move that could cost 15 rookies their jobs. The newspaper reported that 53% of the union membership rejected a contract with a 2% pay cut that ensured no layoffs for at least a year.

Firefighters, even volunteers, are under attack in California with the Orange County Fire Authority cutting the program in half. According to the Orange County Register, volunteers asked the authority to spare the reserve program and a lawyer warned the board it could be in breach of contract if it did so. The pleas went unanswered, however, and the authority slashed the program in half, cutting 245 reserve positions.

In southern California, San Diego's fire chief is proposing a $7.2 million cut in the fire department's budget for 2011–2012 that could result in additional fire apparatus sidelined and firefighters laid off, according to KGTV, 10News. According to the TV station, the department is facing a $72 million deficit in the upcoming year and the city's administration asked police, fire, recreation and library officials to cut $75 million in spending to cover the shortfall.

Fire Chief Javier Mainar suggested eliminating staffing for a seasonal firefighting helicopter, implementing brownouts for five additional engine companies and laying off up to 60 firefighters. In the current fiscal year, the department instituted a brownout program that idled eight engine companies on a rotating basis to save about $11.5 million.

In Texas, the San Benito Fire Department is dealing with overtime issues, according to the Harlingen Valley Morning Star. City officials met with the fire chief and three captains, asking them to better manage the department to reduce overtime. The department's overtime budget has reached a record $176,504 so far this fiscal year, according to the newspaper, up from $158,891 last year.

And things aren't playing well for firefighters in Peoria, IL, with up to 15 firefighter jobs on the line. According to the Peoria Journal Star, the city is looking for 5% across-the-board cuts that have already been endorsed by the City Council. Police officers and Public Works Department employees are also being affected by the proposed cuts, according to the newspaper.

There is one bright spot — Bensalem, PA, started a new fire department and hired four full-time paid firefighters. According to The Intelligencer newspaper, Bensalem has six volunteer fire companies that will remain. Each of the four firefighters will earn approximately $40,000 a year, plus benefits, and will join three paid full-time and three part-time fire inspectors from the Fire Marshal's Office to create the Bensalem Township Fire Department.

—Ed Ballam