Cuts Raise Alarm at Spokane, Washington Fire Department

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

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.