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Firefighters Say Proposed Staff Reductions Could Cost Property, Lives

How many firefighters does it take to safely put out a fire?

Fairfax City firefighters and council members disagree on how many it takes to safely and effectively fight a fire. City staff suggests reducing the minimum personnel on ladder trucks from four firefighters to three, while the fire department argues that doing so could cost lives.

"It's a life safety issue for the citizens and firefighters alike," said Fire Chief Dave Rohr.  

The department upped its minimum staffing level in 2007 with the help of a federal grant. Now that grant money has dried up. , council members will weigh whether to go back to three-person staffing on ladder trucks, a savings of about $212,000. 

Reducing minimum staffing levels means less overtime pay for firefighters. No positions would be cut, but the department would not have the money to call in a fourth firefighter to fill in for someone who is sick, at training or on leave.

As far as the fire department is concerned, having only three people to a ladder truck is not acceptable. City staff and council members, however, believe the department should be able to make do.

The Critical First Minutes

Craig Evans, president of City of Fairfax Local 2702, believes the minimum staffing cut would endanger firefighters and citizens alike. Imagine, he said, a fire at 5 a.m. at a large townhouse complex two minutes from Fire Station 3. The first responders would likely be on Foam Engine and truck 403. They'd be the only ones there for those critical first few minutes.

"If there are only three people on the ladder truck then two of them go inside, because you absolutely cannot be inside a fire without a buddy," he said. "That leaves only one person outside to place ladders to every floor, break and open up windows to let out heat and smoke, place lights so that people inside can see how to get out, not to mention that there may be a need for immediate access to the roof. Having been assigned as the driver of Truck 403 prior to having four-person staffing I can tell you this is a daunting task."

Councilman Jeff Greenfield wonders if the minimum staffing cut will have a significant effect on fire rescue. He points out that it's rare to see only one fire engine at a fire. Fairfax City and Fairfax County firefighters rush to the scene, bringing their own squads and equipment. Even single family house fires usually bring at least two engines. 

"Not once did we ever have an issue brought to us that there was a safety risk before 2007," Greenfield said.

A 2010 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology said that four-firefighter teams can get critical tasks done 25 percent faster than three-person teams. The longer it takes to complete these tasks, the more devasting the fire to the property, its occupants and the firefighters trying to extinguish it.

"Each fire requires a prioritization of actions and each one of them is in need of completion right now," Evans said. "When the public has nowhere to turn, when they need immediate help, they dial 911, and their tax dollars demand the best service possible."

A Force to be Reckoned With

Greenfield and City Manager Bob Sisson say the department could also use volunteer forces to fill in as needed.

In 2010, volunteers spent 973 hours filling in empty personnel slots. That's out of 8,994 department ems and fire responses. In 2011, the number of hours grew to 1,352 out of 9,415 responses.

The currently has 12-15 volunteers who could work that fourth ladder truck position. But Volunteer Chief Dave Bryson said his volunteers wouldn't be able to step in all the time.

"Most of our volunteers go to school and/or work weekdays so we'd rarely, if ever, be able to staff the position during weekdays," Bryson said. "I suspect we'd have more folks available to help out weeknights and weekends, but it would be impossible to rely on those folks to cover a position 24 hours per day, 7 days per week."

Staff also argues that three-person staffing is not unheard of. currently operates with three to a ladder truck.

"I can tell you from personal experience that for over 10 years Fairfax County has tried to secure the staffing levels that we have obtained here," Rohr said. "They currently have a grant request in for 15 additional personnel to staff five of their ladder trucks at the level that we want to give up."

Former Councilwoman Patrice Winter urged the city to keep up the standards she voted for in 2007.

"We brought ourself up to that national standard," she said. "We are a force to be reckoned with in the area. People are looking to the city as an example how it should be done."

But this budget season stands to be worse than the last. Much of the FY2013 budget is for non-negotiable items, like fixes for declining infrastructure. Council members say they're stuck with few cost-cutting options.

"I strongly support four-person staffing and was part of the council in 2007 that made it possible," Greenfield said. "The issue before us is increasing overtime at a time of tight budgets to fill the fourth spot on a ladder truck when someone is out. The city manager, in his proposed budget, has suggested to hold the line on overtime. The council will have to balance the fire department's request as we evaluate the overall budget for the coming year."

The council will meet to discuss the budget on April 10. for the full budget schedule.

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