From Glendale, AZ, to Tulsa, OK; from Philadelphia to Atlanta to Los Angeles, the news is the same — budgets are in crisis and firefighters must be laid off. The depth of the financial crisis is deep and emergency workers who haven't been handed a pink slip already or heard the saber rattling of layoffs are lucky.
Firehouses have been closed, rolling "brownouts" are routine, and mergers of departments are becoming more and more prevalent. Moreover, vacancies created by retirements and general employee turnover are not being filled and overtime is being cut as municipalities try to reduce crippling budget deficits. Ironically, some of those same communities are facing huge overtime expenses as departments try to staff fire stations with fewer personnel. And 2010 budgets for public safety look even worse, say those in the know.
The bottom line is that the safety of the public as well as firefighters and emergency personnel has been compromised as a result of governments trying to balance budgets on the backs of public servants, according to the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), a labor organization representing more than 296,000 full-time career firefighters in every state and Canada.
"It's really overwhelming," said Lori Moore-Merrell, the IAFF's assistant to the general president, who is also responsible for technical research and information for the organization. Cities big and small are offering early-retirement and early-out programs, leaving vacancies unfilled and closing stations, all to save money, Moore-Merrell said. It's a trend that alarms her boss, Harold Schaitberger, general president of the IAFF.
"When you reduce a ride (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 put a much larger burden on the firefighters who remain.
Schaitberger acknowledges that the cutback 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 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) SAFER program, perhaps the only glimmer of good news in the crisis.
SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grants were created to provide funding directly to fire departments to help increase the number of trained personnel in their communities. The deadline for submitting applications for SAFER was Jan. 15 and awards are expected to be made quickly to get as many firefighters back to work as possible. While there are no guarantees, Schaitberger said he was 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 locals 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 face 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 its membership, representing more than 3,100 affiliates. Its members are found in every state in the union and protect 85% of the nation's population.
Scanning the headlines from around the nation puts names and faces to the numbers. Some departments are laying off single firefighters while others are in the 10s and 100s.
One department that has sustained a 32% reduction of its workforce is the Muncie, IN, Fire Department. It saw its staffing 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. Muncie, which is home to Ball State University and Ball Hospital, has a full-time population of about 65,000 people that 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 (ALS) medical calls, has had to make some adjustments to the way it does business, according to Mike Whited, 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.)
"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 in 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, in which a fire broke out in a multi-story dormitory 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 has fallen on deaf ears, Whited said. "The public is upset," he 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% 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 to enact that revenue source.
The only hope for Muncie is a SAFER grant. However, in early January, the city's mayor hadn't decided whether to apply with the Jan. 15 deadline that was fast approaching. "I think it's about 50/50 at this point," Whited said of the chances for an application. "The only other choice we have is wait two years and vote them all out of office."
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 should not 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, FL, firefighters were so committed to protecting jobs and keeping firefighters safe that the members of Orlando Fire Department IAFF Local 1365 made 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, fire and police 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% reduction in their budgets, he said, noting that all that was 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% reduction in force of a department comprised of about 500. Rather than take the hit, the union decided to compromise and figure out what its membership could give up to 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 for and, hopefully, obtain 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.
"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 of dollars 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 would be an engine company, then a heavy rescue, and none of these cuts 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 downturn since the Great 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 past, 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 we will get out of this. We've had slumps before and we've always managed to recover."
ED BALLAM, a staff writer for Firehouse.com, is a firefighter with the Haverhill Corner, NH, Fire Department, a nationally certified EMT, and holds certifications in emergency vehicle operations and pump operations. He is a former managing editor of Fire Apparatus and Emergency Equipment magazine.