Daytona Beach Fla--Union Official Challenge County on Staffing
Daytona Beach News Journal
Union leader decries low staffing at county fire stations
By LYDA LONGA
Last update: 26 May 2003
DAYTONA BEACH -- A searing report prepared by a Volusia County firefighters union leader reveals dismally low staffing levels in the county's fire department, among the worst in the country.
Five of the 22 stations operated by Volusia County Fire Services are manned by one firefighter, says the report by Jeremiah Greathouse, vice president of the local firefighters union, which hopes to negotiate new staffing levels with the county.
The ongoing shortage has fostered low morale among firefighters, as well as imposed inadequate levels of service on the thousands of residents who live in the areas where the one-man stations are located, the report claims.
And although the county's remaining 17 stations -- with the exception of one -- have two firefighters per shift, that's still below the international union's standard that calls for a minimum of four, the report says.
In fact, the only county fire station that meets the voluntary standards set by the International Association of Firefighters is the one inside the Daytona Beach International Airport. The Federal Aviation Administration requires four firefighters on duty inside an airport at all times.
The low staffing levels -- which county leaders acknowledge and hope to remedy this summer during their budget talks -- also has become an obstacle to a proposed county ordinance that would compel firefighters all over Volusia, including its 16 cities, to respond to emergencies, regardless of boundaries. The plan is called "closest unit response."
Municipal leaders say they are not enthusiastic about joining with the county on such a program because of its low staffing. All city fire departments in Volusia have at least three firefighters per shift.
County fire services Chief Jim Tauber agrees staffing levels are low, but he disagrees with the report's claim that service to residents is suffering. Fixing the staffing problems will take money, Tauber says. If he could hire 60 additional firefighters in one year -- one firefighter per shift, per station -- it would cost the county more than $3 million.
So far, the department has budgeted for only one-fifth of that with plans to hire 12 new firefighters this fall at a cost of about $500,000. While that's a start, it's still not enough to fix the department's staffing problem, International Association of Firefighters officials say.
And while national fire statistics show at least two-thirds of the fire departments in the country are understaffed, none have sunk to the levels of Volusia's fire department where one and two-man stations are the norm, says George Burke, spokesman for the international association in Washington, D.C.
"This is a severe staffing shortage," Burke says. "There are some departments across the country that have one-man stations but they are unusual and they are normally located in very rural areas."
Greathouse, the local firefighters union official, says the county needs to hire at least 15 firefighters in order to convert its five, one-man stations -- located in highly populated areas -- into two-man operations. That would cost the county about $600,000, he says.
The 27-year-old firefighter says he prepared the 14-page report earlier this year in response to newly-elected County Council members who wanted an update on staffing.
County Council veteran Dwight Lewis says he was floored when he saw the report.
"This is a critical area," Lewis says. "We need to have at least two people per shift. I realize that's the minimum, but it's something I want to fight for on the County Council."
In his report, Greathouse says firefighters who work alone are emotionally and physically stressed because they have the same duties as a two or three-man station and they have no one to debrief with when they return from a call.
Physical safety is an obvious concern, Greathouse says. The five, one-man fire houses are located in populated areas , including one off State Road 44 near New Smyrna Beach, and one off Interstate 4 in Lake Helen. The stations, according to county records, receive just as many calls as their two-man counterparts.
While none of the firefighters who work alone would speak to the News-Journal for fear of reprisal, Greathouse says he has interviewed each of them. He said though the firefighters love their jobs, they are hoping for a partner at the fire station.
The situation is not ideal, Chief Tauber admits, but it's better than it was in the mid-1990s when the department had just over 60 firefighters. He said there are currently 128 sworn personnel, but that includes the chief and other administrators who are not in the field.
Tauber indicates there are "problems" in Greathouse's report, especially with claims about inadequate service to residents. Tauber pointed to statistics from his department showing no residents have died so far this year in residential fires, and one died last year. There were no people killed in vehicle fires last year and none so far this year.
"When they talk about one-man stations, they'd have you think that the one firefighter rolls out on the call by himself," Tauber says. "But emergency vehicles respond as well, as do other fire stations. We also have volunteers."
Burke of the international association says Tauber does not take into account that working alone hinders a firefighter's ability to do the job, regardless of other respondents who come to his or her aid.
"This is very demoralizing," Burke says. "These people train for rapid response. When you're working alone, you have to wait for other firefighters to respond to help you."
Volusia County spokesman Dave Byron says the staffing situation will be a topic at budget workshops this summer and the goal will be converting one-man stations into two-man fire houses.
County Council Chairman Frank Bruno says the fire department's budget could be amended to include more firefighters than the 12 requested.
Even though the county's staffing problem is nothing new, the issue has received plenty of attention in the past few weeks because of the proposed ordinance with area cities to have the closest fire station respond to emergency calls, regardless of city or county boundaries.
Administrators and fire officials in most area cities say the idea of a closest unit-response agreement appeals to them. But they are willing to enter into such a pact only with other municipalities with comparable staffing. Otherwise, the cities could end up providing more assistance than they receive in aid from the county.
"I am still worried about the staffing situation in the county," says New Smyrna Beach City Manager Frank Roberts.
Port Orange City Manager Ken Parker says if the ordinance passes, his city would receive aid from two county fire stations that are understaffed -- one at the intersection of Tomoka Farms and Taylor roads that has two firefighters and the one off State Road 44 that has one.
But using the county's low staffing levels as an excuse to avoid participating in the closest unit response program, is wrong, Tauber and Councilman Lewis say.
"The idea is to save lives as quickly as possible," Tauber says.