Cuts Raise Alarm at Spokane, Washington Fire Department

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.''

Hill, who is married with two children, is one of about three dozen firefighters facing layoffs. Retirements and vacancies are expected to make up for the rest of the staffing cuts.

The dollar loss in training and experience is hard to gauge. Hill has been on the force for just over two years. He spent 10 years before that working on volunteer and rural departments. In Spokane, basic and specialized training for Hill alone has cost city taxpayers nearly $100,000, he said.

Hill's prospects for getting a firefighting job in another city are not good. Hundreds of applicants compete for every municipal firefighter opening, no matter where they come up. Applicants are drawn largely by the challenge of the job, but the pay is good, too. Unions over the years have won improvements in wages and working conditions. Safety practices have also improved.

A tentative contract proposal about to be sent to the City Council calls for paying firefighters as much as $64,000 at top scale. Entry level would be $29,000. Pay goes up with higher ranks. The increase would be about 11 percent on average, but firefighters have worked for two years without a contract or pay increase.

The department now responds to about 23,000 calls a year, up from 12,400 in 1984 when there were 26 fire engines and 77 firefighters available 24 hours a day, not counting battalion chiefs. Union firefighters said that is the staffing that Spokane should have now. The bulk of the calls are medical emergencies or accidents.

It takes 16 full-time firefighters to staff a four-person engine or ladder truck. Firefighters are organized into four platoons, and each platoon works one 24-hour shift every four days. Spokane uses a small force of relief firefighters to fill in for vacations and sick days. The city increased its staffing from three platoons to four platoons about a decade ago.

Spokane's fire force at the start of 2004 was smaller than that in Tacoma, a city of comparable size. Tacoma had staffing of 401 compared with 330 in Spokane. Tacoma had 16 stations and 28 fire rigs, compared with Spokane's 14 stations and 16 rigs.

Salaries in Tacoma are lower than the proposed contract for Spokane firefighters. Firefighters of the lowest rank earn as much as $60,300 a year in Tacoma, said Ron Stephens, that city's assistant fire chief.

Stephens said the salaries may seem high, but firefighting is ``a lot more difficult than most people realize.''

Spokane isn't alone in facing cuts. Many cities have had to reduce staffing. Tacoma's fire department is expected to lose one fire station and 13 firefighters next year.

In Everett, the department charges patients for medical responses to recover insurance money. Spokane union leaders have suggested doing the same here.

Williams plans to reduce his management staff and support personnel.

He is eliminating one battalion chief in human resources and one for planning, two captains, one assistant fire marshal, one deputy fire marshal, four lieutenants, the department's mechanic and seven firefighters in the relief pool.

The rest of the cuts, 36 in all, would be taken from the station houses.

Much of what firefighters do is based on two-person tasks done in ``work groups.'' Proposed staffing reductions would take the current 27 work groups down to 22.

Williams said he is trying to maintain the four-person staffing on as many rigs as possible to keep those pairs of firefighters together.

Here is why:

When an engine arrives at the scene of a fire, the driver drops off one firefighter to hook a hose to a hydrant while the other two prepare to attack the blaze or protect adjacent structures. The driver operates the pump while the other firefighter opens the hydrant.

The first ladder company on the scene begins the two-person job of ventilating the structure by cutting a hole in the roof while its second two-person team takes on the job of search-and-rescue.

Two three-person crews could not safely conduct a rescue mission because they would be two firefighters short. They would have to await the arrival of additional units.

``We are going to lose five work groups,'' Williams said. ``To us, that's significant. That's almost 20 percent of the work groups we have now.''

It may be significant to insurance companies, too. They last rated the city of Spokane at risk level 3 in 1999. Williams said the rating will probably increase to level 4 during the next survey. That is most likely to cause an increase in commercial insurance rates, but not residential rates, he said.

Sections of Spokane that would become most vulnerable to long response times are at the northwest, southwest and southeast corners of the city, union leaders said.

Because of the locations of stations and geography of the city, units would have to travel farther to mount an effective firefighting force, they said.

The cuts also will mean slower responses for incidents involving hazardous materials, river mishaps and technical rescues such as a trench collapse or a hiker injured on a cliff. Williams said he will have to staff those calls with firefighters from two different stations, increasing the risk of longer responses and making training more difficult.

Union leaders are quietly talking about the possibility of a tax increase, but they haven't spoken publicly about it because they believe city residents are not likely to be receptive, especially if it involves an increase in the tax on city utilities, which is already 17 percent. A public safety property tax levy could be put to voters for funding in 2006.

Lt. Greg Borg, president of firefighters' Local 29, said, ``We'll continue to do the same job,'' despite the cuts.

But he promised a fight to restore staffing levels. ``We understand the predicament the mayor is in,'' Borg said. ``We feel there is a better way.''