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...
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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.