Fire Chiefs Discuss Good, Bad and Ugly at Expo

The fire service is feeling the effects of a poor economy and chief officers everywhere have to make some adjustments – but it’s not all doom and gloom, a panel of four prominent chiefs told a classroom of eager students at Firehouse Expo.

An open panel discussion during Friday’s conference sessions, Richard Bowers, Chief of Montgomery County (Md.) Fire and Rescue Service, James Clack, Chief of the Baltimore Fire Department, Charles Hood, Chief of the San Antonio (Texas) Fire Department and Edward Kilduff, chief of the Fire Department of New York.

All four men they have had to make adjustments to the way they do business in light of dwindling revenues from tax dollars, some more than others.

“The economic situation is not good anywhere,” said Bower acknowledging the slow economy has affected the way he provides services to the population he protects. “It made it necessary for us to prioritize calls, focusing on advance life support (ALS) calls and structure fires,” he said, noting that other lesser calls might have to wait for a response.

Bower also said he was forced trade ladder company personnel in favor of keeping four people on an engine, instead of reducing them to three crews.

“Did it hurt us, yes,” Bowers said “Did it kill us, no.”

Kilduff explained FDNY is down 300 firefighters through attrition since the economy has weakened. Those personnel were support folks who handled training and health services for firefighters. Loosing those positions makes it more difficult to support the employees.

“From an operational standpoint, we’re handling it,” Kilduff said. “But, we’re looking for more.”

Hood said fortunately for him, San Antonio is “holding its own” and he has not been confronted with kinds of other problems other communities have faced. There have been some financial issues, like the kind that has forced him to delay a paramedic class and make some adjustments in way services are delivered for the average 900 calls per day his department experiences as the seventh largest city in the United States.

What he finds more troubling, Hood said, is the actions of some of his firefighters. He said last year, a firefighter for San Antonio crashed a ladder truck that cost the city $900,000 to replace and it came directly out of city funds because it’s self insured for moving apparatus. Also, the department has suffered from a number of DWI charges against firefighters which has tarnished its reputation and could financially harm it as well.

“The performance and behavior of individual firefighters affects us greatly,” Hood said.

For Clack in Baltimore, city officials have been threatening to cut 150 people from the department, but haven’t done so yet. Because of that threat, which hasn’t materialized and was actually dropped in the most current budget proposal.

However, because of that threat, Clack said he delayed hiring new recruits and ended up being 110 people short which has taken him months catch up and get back up to the appropriate staffing.

“We were at least three months behind,” he said noting that he didn’t think it was fair to hire people only to lay them off, or others more established, two or three months later.

While there have been some frustrations, each of the chiefs mentioned positive things the department has done.

Clark said Baltimore firefighters have installed 250,000 smoke detectors in the city and is about to go out to install another 10,000. The project, which is funded principally with grant money, gets firefighters out into the community and he’s certain it has helped save lives.

Baltimore plans to step up the initiative with a dedicated phone number, 311, which, when called, will dispatch firefighters to the residence in two hours or less to install smoke detectors immediately.

“We’ll be handling the calls like a non-emergency response,” Clack said, noting that up to 40 smoke detectors and batteries and screw guns are kept in each engine and some are in virtually every department vehicle in the fleet.

He said Baltimore has a significant substance abuse problem and it’s important that smoke detectors be installed to alert people and hopefully save lives. Fire deaths had been averaging 25 annually in the city, but it was down to 6 this year which is on track for a 50 percent reduction.

For Hood, firefighter and paramedic fitness is important for San Antonio. He said the department had a paramedic who died in the back of an ambulance. He had hooked himself up to the cardiac monitor and other equipment in the back of the rig and died, Hood said. “That’s right where we found him,” he said.

Hood said he pushed for, and got mandatory physicals for fire department employees, but personnel won’t lose their jobs because of the findings. As a result of the physicals, 45 firefighters were found to have issues that needed treatment and four were “taken off line” to prevent what would have been an inevitable heart attack, whether it was on duty or mowing lawn at home.

Kilduff said FDNY has been focusing on reducing fire deaths. There was a time, not so long ago where upwards of 400 people annually died in New York City from fires. Last year, there were 62 deaths.

Kilduff does not, however, diminish any loss of life, but is pleased the department’s efforts have been paying dividends with reductions in the number of deaths through fire safety initiatives.

Bower from Montgomery County said his department has also done its share of installing smoke detectors in homes. But in a different kind of twist, he said his department does a number of social media messages about fire safety on Facebook and Twitter.

The department has received more than 1.2million hits with people learning about topics ranging from keeping kids safe in pools to driving on slippery roads.

“The results have been tremendous,” Bower said. “It really is the wave of the future.”