Cuts Raise Alarm at Spokane, Washington Fire Department

Budget cuts pending at Spokane City Hall have raised the fear level

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) -- The darkest moment in Fire Chief Bobby Williams' career came when a fellow firefighter died in a rescue attempt during a house fire in the early 1970s.

But Williams has not lost a firefighter in the line of duty as fire chief for his 16 years in Spokane. The last firefighter to be killed in Spokane was in 1982.

``That's probably the worst fear of any fire chief in America is to have someone die under your watch,'' Williams, 53, said.

Budget cuts pending at Spokane City Hall have raised the fear level. Williams and firefighters said proposed staffing reductions next year will make it more difficult to maintain the fast responses and good training that protect firefighters and the public.

Under the latest budget projections, Williams said it appears the department will lose 58 firefighters and one civilian mechanic from its 2004 force of 330 uniformed and non-uniformed employees. The cuts amount to a $4.6 million reduction from what would become a $29 million budget for fire and emergency medical services.

The cuts come as the city struggles to reduce next year's general-fund budget by $12 million, after cutting $6 million last September. Higher costs for salaries and health benefits combined with sluggish growth in tax revenue are among the main causes of City Hall's money woes.

Fire department cuts would reduce the department's 24-hour on-duty staffing from 63 to 54 firefighters. That's 25 fewer firefighters than the city deployed around the clock in 1984, when there were half as many fire and emergency calls.

The number of fire rigs would drop from 19 to 16. Rigs to be parked next year include the engine at Station No. 2 at Hamilton Street and North Foothills Drive, and the Medic 1 and Rescue 1 rigs at Fire Station No. 1 at Riverside Avenue and Browne Street. No stations will be closed.

Williams said he will redeploy his force to maintain the fastest possible response times for the first unit on the scene. But any type of house fire will draw rigs from a wider area of the city, leaving residents in those areas vulnerable if another fire or emergency occurs.

Longer response times would also be expected if multiple medical calls are received in the same part of the city at the same time.

``We are not going to be as deep for handling multiple incidents,'' the chief said.

At some fires, assembling the necessary force will occur more slowly as several engines and crews are always needed for hooking a hose to a hydrant; ventilating a burning house to clear the heat and smoke; sending masked firefighters into a fire for search-and-rescue; and monitoring the team to make sure everyone is safe.

Studies show a fire can become fatal in as little as three to seven minutes. The average time for the first vehicle to arrive in Spokane now is just under six minutes, the amount of time someone can live without breathing and not suffer brain damage if they are resuscitated.

``There's no misleading the community,'' Williams said. ``We can in no way provide the same level of service we provide today.''

Fire union officials said the reduced staffing could be critical during major fires, such as the one at Castle Rock Industries and along High Drive in 2003 and at the Mars Hotel in 1999.

This year's budget cuts and layoffs are dispiriting for a department that has built a reputation on fast, effective responses to emergencies. ``The only thing I've faced that's harder in my career is when we had a firefighter who died,'' Williams said.

The city's unionized firefighters have launched a public relations campaign to persuade the Spokane City Council to restore at least some of the cuts proposed by Mayor Jim West.

``We are at a point where some citizen is going to finance these budget cuts with their house,'' firefighter D.J. Hill said. ``I wouldn't want to lose my home because of short staffing.''

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