Although it does not plan on eliminating any positions, a proposal by the City of Fairfax to cut some minimum staffing requirements for its firefighters has met resistance by both the city’s fire chief and the president of a local firefighter’s union.
“We recommend a reduction of the minimum staffing level policy of the fire department with regard to the city’s truck (ladder) company,” City Manager Robert L. Sisson wrote in his recommended fiscal 2013 Budget Transmittal Message. “This would reduce daily minimum staffing on the truck company from four personnel to three personnel.”
In a presentation before the council last month, Fairfax City Fire Chief Dave Rohr voiced his concerns with the staffing reduction proposal.
“The reduction of staffing on the truck company from four to three is of great concern,” he said. “The council decided five years ago to support minimum staffing levels of four personnel on all suppression apparatus. The reasons for supporting that have not changed from then until now. I thoroughly understand the fiscal situation that you are in, it is a difficult situation for all of us but the decision in my eyes can not be made for fiscal reasons. It is a life safety issue, for the citizens and the firefighters alike.”
In his budget message, Sisson outlines the reduced staffing proposal as one of many intended to help mitigate a $9 million general fund deficit, the majority of which has come about as a result of additional funding needs for an increasing grade school population.
“The school board is seeking $6.3 million in funding over FY12 levels,” he wrote. “This change to the [fire department] minimum staffing policy will allow overtime expenses to be reduced by approximately $212,000.”
The issue is that education will be funded with public safety funds, and potentially human lives, says Craig Evans, president of the City of Fairfax Local 2702 fireman’s union.
The first five minutes a fire search and rescue crew is on the scene is critical, Evans says.
“With two teams of two, one team will go inside to search, because you never go into a fire alone. The other team meanwhile can open windows, cut holes in the roof and deal with ladders and lighting. With only three people, you are leaving one person outside with a whole lot of work to do.”
According to a 2010 study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology, four-person fire and rescue teams are generally 25 percent more effective than three-person teams.
But Sisson says the Fairfax County Fire Department only has three people on its trucks, and that his proposal would simply align Fairfax City’s fire staffing requirement with that of the county.
“Yes, it is true that we have three people on a truck,” said Fairfax County Fire and Rescue spokesman Dan Schmidt. “But if we could afford it, we would rather have four on a truck. According to the International Association of Fire Fighters, having four is significantly better and safer in terms of firefighter safety, resident safety and property safety.”
In 2007, Fairfax City obtained a five-year federal grant allowing them to increase their staffing levels, but that money is now gone, leaving the department with an optimal staffing standard they can no longer afford on their own.
“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,” said Rohr on March 14. “They currently have a grant request in for 15 additional personnel to staff five of their ladder tucks at the level that we now want to give up.”
Sisson says the fiscal 2013 budget is still in flux and that anything could happen before it is adopted on May 2.
“The $9 million general fund deficit only exists if we don’t raise revenues,” he said on Thursday. “Since I brought that figure up we have recommended some real estate tax increases, but they have not yet been approved so we are still in the process of balancing this budget. No one loses a job with my fire department staffing reduction proposal. It simply means that you can have an extra person fill in for any position that may be out sick, or in training, etc. — that would otherwise go towards overtime. It is what it is. I wouldn’t have recommended this at all if we weren’t in these particularly tight times.”