Budget Woes Handicap Fire Service
City officials often brag on the “world-class” Pensacola Fire Department. It was one of the major selling points for consolidation. What isn’t mentioned publicly is that 60 percent of the city’s fire stations are undermanned to the point that they don’t meet national fire safety standards. Precious minutes are being lost as multiple stations are having to be called in to fight fires before crews can enter burning structures.
“Before I came on the council two years ago, there was a 30-month budget put in place and part of that was a reduction in the manning of the rescue trucks,” Maren DeWeese, Pensacola City Council president, told the IN. The draw down was supposed to be temporary, according to DeWeese. However, the reduction in funding to man those trucks has become permanent as city revenues continue to decline.
There are some stations that are properly manned. “Fire Station 5 is on the airport,” said DeWeese. “They have to stay at the airport and leave those firemen in place to meet the federal requirements. But, three of the other four stations around town are being run and funded 100 percent of the time with only three people to respond to a fire.”
Three men aren’t enough for a crew to enter a burning structure, according to the fire safety standards of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA rules mandate that a firefighter cannot enter a burning structure alone. OSHA Rule 1910.134(g)(4)(ii) also requires two men to be outside a burning structure while two firefighters are inside so that if the men inside the building get in trouble they can be rescued by their co-workers. The three-man Pensacola fire crews must wait for another crew to arrive before any firefighters can handle an emergency inside the burning building or they violate OSHA rules.
The stations that are understaffed are Station 2, off Davis Highway, Station 3, on Summit Boulevard, and Station 4, located on North Q Street. The downsizing included the elimination of 12 fire positions over the past three years.
“The service that citizens are getting is three men showing up at a fire in the first five to seven minutes and then possibly 10 minutes (later) another truck may be able to get there,” said DeWeese. “Residential fires are the most dangerous fires in comparison. Every minute in a residential fire, the fire doubles.”
Interim Pensacola Fire Chief Matt Schmitt confirmed DeWeese’s statements concerning fire station staffing. “We’ve downsized with the budgets of every other city department here trying to make it through the economic hard times we are in,” Schmitt explained. “Positions were defunded; when someone retired out, we just didn’t hire in.”
Schmitt told the IN that the downsizing has created problems when working simultaneously with large, multiple incidents. “But, we do have a mutual aid agreement with the Escambia County Fire Rescue. We can draw on them for support, but it takes time,” Schmitt continued. “Before the downsizing, we could easily manage two major incidents at the same time. Considering the size and scope of a given incident, that could be extremely difficult at this time.”
Schmitt insisted that the fire department is trying to maintain the service delivery the best they can and that 99 percent of the city is well-served. He added, “It’s just when we get multiple incidents, which happens frequently—it can delay our response and take a little longer to get our resources on scene.”
DeWeese is concerned that our Insurance Services Office rating would go down. She stated that we would probably be rated a “3” if the current funding stays. It was of concern to continue looking into the situation to see what could be done about fire coverage.
On the bright side, the Pensacola Fire Department recently received authorization to hire on four new firemen, though it may take a little time before they are on shifts due to the required training and extensive background checks. The application time frame has already closed and the review process is now underway.
Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward also released a statement to the citizens concerning the area’s fire coverage. He explained, “I’m working hard to make sure we provide our citizens with the best public safety services we can provide while still being cost-effective. All of these services cost money, and we are trying to balance the needs of the community with our ability to pay for those services.”
Travis Peterson, the volunteer media relations coordinator for Hayward, told IN to keep in mind that city council was the body that approved the originally 30-month budget, but that there may have been extenuating circumstances for eliminating positions.
“The mayor wants to make sure the citizens have the best public safety the can provide, with the resouces available. As funds become to come in, the mayor will look at all the city’s needs and prioritize them for funding,” said Peterson.
“We are all having to do more with less. The city is still nationally certified for its fire services and the Mayor will continue to look for ways to cut wasteful spending and invest in essential services that benefit all citizens.”
The challenge for Mayor Ashton Hayward and the new Pensacola City Council will be to ensure in these tight budgetary times that the citizens get the fire protection that they have come to expect.
The firefighters have been stretched to their capacity and haven’t been given the financial support to consistently meet the public’s expectations or the politicians’ promises of “world-class” fire service.
PENSACOLA FIRE DEPARTMENT BUDGETED POSITIONS BY
Source: City Of Pensacola
PENSACOLA FIRE DEPARTMENT ANNUAL BUDGET
2007 Actual: $11,490,203
2008 Actual: $10,957,039
2009 Actual: $10,543,678
2010 Budget: $10,505,600
2011 Budget: $10,087,900
Source: City of Pensacola