Budget Cutters Playing A Dangerous Game

You have to travel around the country to fully understand what tough times mean for the fire-rescue service. If you measured the nation's economic health by what has happened to fire department budgets, you'd have to conclude that we're in the midst of a depression. But the exact opposite is true the economy is doing fine while fire protection is suffering.

I've been on the road covering the presidential primary campaign and, when time permits, I visit with local firefighters to learn how they're doing. In almost every city and town, I hear the same dismal story of understaffed fire departments struggling to provide the basic fire-rescue services. Occasionally, you find a place where they have the money to operate as a fire department should, but that's become the exception rather than the rule. The level of fire protection in many American cities may be at an all-time low and I fear we've reached the point where substandard has become an acceptable norm.

It didn't happen overnight or by accident; we've been reporting these budget problems for 15 years. At first I thought it was a temporary phenomenon that would go away when the economy improved, but that didn't happen. Instead, it got worse as more local governments were swept up in the fever to cut taxes and limit spending.

Elected officials slash away at fire department budgets because they'll never be held accountable for maintaining understaffed fire companies. The news media don't understand how a fire department operates and the public doesn't care how many firefighters are on board an engine or ladder truck. All they know is that the apparatus responds to every call for help.

But firefighters know how desperate their situation has become. If they could speak out publicly which most cannot do they'd tell the taxpayers that a dangerous game is being played with their lives and property. The chief of a medium-sized city with a heavy fire load told me how his department is struggling to get by with three men on an engine and only two on the ladder trucks. The results: more extra alarms and more calls for mutual aid to get the manpower that once responded on a first alarm. "All it takes is two working fires back-to-back and we're in trouble," he admitted.

Another chief told me why he had resigned rather than go along with more budget cuts. His staffing already had been reduced to three firefighters per company and they were being run ragged by emergency medical calls, when the mayor and city council decided to save more money at the expense of the fire department. "We had built the first-responder system because it was the right thing to do," he explained, "and we've saved a lot of lives that would have been lost. But instead of appreciating the service we deliver, the thanks we got was another budget cut."

Another scam being foisted on the fire service is the idea of "single pull" stations. Under this system, an engine and ladder truck in the same firehouse are staffed with only one crew, which responds with either the engine or the truck. One piece of apparatus remains back in the firehouse and second-alarm companies are assigned to make up for the missing pieces. It takes longer to reach the scene and more companies are out of service on every alarm, but the fiction is preserved that the firehouse still has an engine and a truck company ready to respond.

The worst situation may be here in the nation's capital, where a budget crisis has the District of Columbia playing "firehouse roulette" by rotating several companies out of service on a daily basis to save money. They've permanently closed an engine, truck and rescue squad and reduced the staffing on all companies from five to four. At one point, half of the city's ladder trucks were out of service for mechanical problems. Unfortunately, there have been civilian fire deaths in districts where the first-due engine was rotated out of service and the second-due was out on a run. The official line is that it has no effect on fireground operations, which insults the intelligence of any knowledgeable person. The mayor told the news media that truck companies weren't important because they don't use their aerial ladders on every fire! Worse yet, his ridiculous statement went unchallenged!

Everyone was impressed this winter when they saw dramatic television pictures of a spectacular high-rise apartment fire in Chicago, IL. The miracle is that only four died while dozens were rescued and hundreds led to safety by firefighters. Lives were saved because the Chicago Fire Department floods a working fire with manpower on the first alarm. A "still-and-box" alarm gets an automatic response of four engines, three trucks, a squad and three battalion chiefs with five firefighters on every company. It puts 40 firefighters on the scene in a matter of minutes and that makes a vital difference in saving lives. In the last decade, the number of extra-alarm fires and fire deaths in Chicago have been cut almost in half. Part of the reason is an aggressive fire prevention program, but the heavy first-alarm response also is believed to be a factor.

I've often heard the feeble excuse that reduced staffing can be justified because other jurisdictions operate with only three firefighters per company or use the single-pull system. To which, I ask: why should the wrong way be an example to follow? An understaffed fire department is something to be avoided, not a goal to be achieved. Somehow, political leaders have to be shown that the Chicago way is the right way.

Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is the ABC News political director and served many years as a volunteer firefighter.