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Financial Hard Times Means Layoffs for Firefighters

Editor's Note: An abbreviated version of this article appears in the February 2010 issue of Firehouse Magazine, starting on page 60. Also read "Telling it Like it Is - Doing less with less. When will we learn?" and respond with your thoughts and concerns.

If there's any silver lining in the staffing crisis the fire service is facing currently, it's the fact that the federal government is preparing to open the spigot on $420 million in federal grants aimed at getting firefighters back to work.

The application deadline for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) SAFER grants was Jan. 15 and grant administrators have promised a quick turnaround on making awards.

The number of applicants for the latest round is not yet available, but in 2006, there were 1,728 applications; 1,503 in 2007; and 1,314 in 2008.

The rules for the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) Grants got a little more relaxed this year, which may have increased the number of applicants.

This year, previously laid off firefighters could be rehired under the grant. In past years, grants were designed only for new hires to increase staffing levels, not to preserve the status quo, or restore positions.

And there are thousands of positions from coast to coast begging for restoration.

From Glendale, Ariz., to Tulsa, Okla., to Philadelphia, Atlanta, and L.A., departments of all sizes and configurations have laid off firefighters, or are planning to reduce firefighter staffing levels.

Those who haven't been handed pink slips are likely facing departments with fewer colleagues, as many towns and cities are not replacing positions lost by normal attrition created by retirements and normal turnover.

Fire stations have been closed. Communities have faced rolling "brownouts," and talks of mergers are increasing. Some communities are even considering eliminating fire departments in favor of contracting fire protection to private business.

Those in the know believe future budgets for public safety look worse.

The bottom line is the safety of the general public - as well as firefighters and emergency personnel - have been compromised as a result of trying to balance budgets on the backs of public servants, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters, a labor organization representing more than 296,000 full-time career firefighters in every state of the Union and Canada.

"It's really overwhelming," summed up Lori Moore-Merrell, IAFF's assistant to the general president, who is also responsible for technical research and information for the organization.

As deadlines for layoffs in towns approach, unions have been forced to make compromises to keep staff. The money just isn't there to pay benefits and raises and sustain staffing levels, community leaders are telling union officials.

And some union locals are responding by taking pay cuts, deferring raises and handing back some benefits to help the communities they protect save the jobs of their brothers and sisters.

Still, cities big and small are providing early retirement programs and early out offerings, leaving vacancies unfilled and closing stations all to save money, Moore-Merrell said.

It's a trend that has her boss, Harold Schaitberger, general president of the IAFF, alarmed.

"When you reduce a [firefighter] off a rig, it's very difficult for a community to restore that position," Schaitberger said, noting that reductions in force for any department place a much larger burden on the firefighters remaining.

Schaitberger acknowledges the cutbacks in firefighter forces nationwide is troubling and the IAFF is doing everything it can to work with its members and political leaders to reverse the trend.

He said he and the IAFF staff have been working with government officials on the program.

While there are no guarantees, Schaitberger is optimistic that most of the laid off firefighters around the nation will be headed back to work quickly as the SAFER money is awarded.

To put the crisis into some perspective, the IAFF conducted a "staffing survey report" of all its locals throughout the country. More than a third responded, according to the study, and the numbers are bleak.

The IAFF estimates that at least 542 locals are dealing with real or proposed layoffs and more than 5,400 positions will be lost.

Moreover, it's estimated that more than 900 local unions will lose a total of nearly 6,200 positions to attrition that are not expected to be filled anytime soon. With layoffs and lost positions through attrition, about 540 locals are facing company closures and 337 locals are looking at station closures.

Additionally, some 230 locals are, or will be, dealing with "brownouts" during this economic crisis and 212 are looking at employee furloughs.

The IAFF has nearly 300,000 career firefighters in their membership representing more than 3,100 affiliates. Its members are found in every state in the union and protect 85 percent of the nation's population.

Scanning the headlines from around the nation puts names and faces to the numbers. Some departments are laying off one firefighter while others are in the 10s and 100s.

Just to name a few who have or are planning firefighter layoffs, here's a list compiled from news headlines: Brockton, Mass.; New York City; Saratoga, Fla.; Revere, Mass.; Austin, Texas; Alameda, Calif.; Moline, Ill.; Pittsburgh, Pa.; Haverhill, Mass; and the list crisscrosses the country several times over.

One department that has sustained a 32 percent reduction of its workforce is the Muncie (Ind.) Fire Department. It saw its staff levels shaved from 110 members to 78 just last year, and that was in addition to jobs lost over the past several years from a high of 132.

Mike Whited is the president of the Muncie Firefighter IAFF Local 1348 and a sergeant with the Muncie Fire Department. The rank of sergeant is the equivalent of driver/engineer in other departments, he said.

Muncie, which is home to Ball State University and Ball Hospital, has a full-time population of about 65,000 people which swells to as much as 200,000 when school is in session and during business hours when commuters flood the city.

The department, which responds to 6,000 calls annually, including advanced life support medical calls, has had to make some adjustments to the way it does business, according to Whited.

"In 2009, we were ordered to only respond to critical ALS calls," Whited said. "That means the patient has to be unconscious at the time the 911 call is made. …I know that change in protocol has resulted loss of civilian life."

Whited said the staffing reduction has also affected fire protection. Two recent calls make his point well.

The department was called to a well-involved structure fire with roof collapse as the department arrived on the scene. It was one of those "all-hands-on-deck" fires that left the department, which was already shorthanded from the layoffs, woefully understaffed, Whited said.

"We had one truck and three guys to cover the rest of the city, including Ball State University," Whited said.

There was an incident, fortunately not at the same time, where a fire broke out in a multi-story dorm room where 2,000 students had to be evacuated, a task virtually impossible to accomplish with just three firefighters, Whited said.

There has been outcry from the citizens about the situation, but it's fallen on deaf ears, Whited said.

"The public is upset," Whited said. "We had a well attended rally, but nothing has changed."

Compounding Muncie's situation is a 2008 property tax cap, passed by the Indiana General Assembly, and the fact that 51 percent of the city is dominated by Ball State University and Ball Hospital which are both non-profit organizations and are not taxable.

The city could adopt a local property tax to help pay for emergency services, but officials have been reluctant enact that revenue source.

The only hope for Muncie is a SAFER grant. After much negotiations and sole searching Muncie is applying for a grant and hopes to know by June if it will be able to hire back firefighters forced into unemployment.

Whited said the SAFER grant is the only hope the department has at this point. "The only other choice we have is wait two years and vote them all out of office," he said.

IAFF President Schaitberger said he is encouraged by the changes in the SAFER grant program that will allow departments to rehire people previously laid off to restore positions lost.

"This money is essentially free money for two years," Schaitberger said. "There is no cap on firefighters and there's no match required by municipalities."

One of Schaitberger's biggest concerns is, of course, firefighter safety. He's concerned about municipalities that have decided to reduce the number of firefighters assigned to apparatus. Politicians shouldn't adopt a philosophy of downsizing without first considering the safety of firefighters, he said.

The IAFF has taken the position that it's best to keep at least four firefighters on each apparatus and, if reductions are absolutely necessary, it's better to idle an apparatus or even temporarily close the station.

Schaitberger equated understaffing apparatus as overcrowding in a classroom.

"You wouldn't want 60 kids in a classroom," he said. "…There's no need to take chances. Firefighters work in very difficult conditions."

Orlando firefighters were so committed to protecting jobs and keeping firefighters safe, the members of Orlando Fire Department, IAFF Local 1365 made some serious concessions to preserve firefighters' positions.

Steve Clelland is president of the Local 1365 and he said his department is in "limbo" when it comes to layoffs.

The city notified many of its emergency services employees, police and fire included, of a need to reduce personnel in March to make up a $40 million shortfall in the budget, Clelland said. City officials asked each department in the city to make a 12 percent reduction in their budgets, he said, noting that the only thing left to cut was personnel.

"The budget was already very tight," he said. "There was no fat to cut, so we had to look at personnel."

The city notified the union that 46 firefighters would be laid off on Oct. 1, plus 26 that had lost through attrition, representing about a 14 percent reduction in force of a department comprised of about 500.

Rather than take the hit, the union decided to compromise and figure out what kinds of things its membership could give up make up the revenue shortfall.

The members decided to forgo first quarter 2010 raises, made concessions in education expenses and uniform allowances and gave up physicals for a year.

"We were the only union to compromise to save jobs," Clelland said.

The members did so with the understanding that the city would apply and, hopefully, be successful in getting a SAFER grant, Clelland said, praising IAFF headquarters for working with the city to make sure the grant was in place and done properly. The application was filed long before the deadline and Clelland said the city hoped to hear by Feb. 6 whether it was awarded or not.

"We can't support that forever and the city knows that and knows we are doing everything we can to keep those jobs," he said.

In addition to the jobs themselves, Clelland said the city's Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating is at stake. Orlando spent years and millions to achieve its Class 1 status. Layoffs would wipe away all that effort in a heartbeat, dropping the city back to a Class 3 or 4 rating.

"That might not mean a lot to the residents, but it will mean a lot to the businesses," Clelland said.

If the layoffs take effect, and the firefighters still have active pink slips in their possession, the first service to go will be EMS responses. Clelland said the city has eight rescue trucks that help out with the ambulances on medical calls. Next to go will be an engine company, then a heavy rescue, and none are acceptable, Clelland said.

The Orlando Fire Department, founded in 1885, has not had any layoffs since the Great Depression and, if Clelland is successful in his efforts to preserve jobs, they won't in this recession, considered to be the worst economic down turn since the depression.

Clelland said Orlando, which is home to Disney World, Sea World, and Universal Studios, is dependent on tourists for income and on its reputation as a safe place to visit. It also has a bright future, once the economic slump is in the rear view mirror, unlike some parts of the nation where businesses have shuttered, never to be opened again.

"The city has been very supportive, but layoffs are not acceptable," Clelland said. "We're confident will get out of this. We've had slumps before and we've always managed to recover."