Fire Department scrambles as number of positions shrinks

       The “sound bite” for this year's city budget is that Fire Department manpower did not get cut.

Steve Dubay

       But this is not the full story, as Battalion Chief Steve Dubay outlined for attendees at a recent presentation on the Westside.
       The fact is, this is the second straight year that the CSFD has lost firefighters (even though no active employees were laid off). After reaching an all-time high of 511 employees (civilian as well as sworn officers) in 2008, the department's numbers dropped to 486 in 2009 and to 445 this year as a result of eliminating unfilled positions and not replacing retirees, explained Dubay, who oversees a geographic service area that includes the Westside.
       The result has been fewer fire employees taking on an ever-increasing workload - as indicated by the statistics that emergency calls have more than tripled since 1988 and that there were about 5,000 more of them in 2009 than in 2008. Although there has not yet been a noticeable service impact - at least in emergency response - that could happen in the near future, Dubay elaborated in a follow-up interview.
       For the coming budget year, he revealed in his talk at an Organization of Westside Neighbors (OWN) meeting, “the fire chief has been asked to make recommendations for cutting $6.5 million.” This is after a $1.6 million cut this year, which put the 2010 budget below 2008's.) One idea that's being considered is not responding to the least severe medical calls, he said. For example, if someone has a sprained ankle, the thinking is that in a pinch that person could find his or her own way to treatment. Another cut could be in the area of specialized rescues that the Fire Department is now trained to perform, Dubay said. These include auto- accident extractions; cave-ins; building collapses; ice rescues; water rescues and elevator rescues. Some of those “no one else does,” he said.
       Statistics that Dubay presented to OWN revealed that in 1988, the city covered 112 square miles and the population was 281,000; also in that year, the number of emergency calls was 15,592. Ten years later, the area had grown to 185 square miles and a population of 345,000. Meanwhile, the emergencies had more than doubled, to 33,145.
       From 1998 to 2008, the area increased far less (to 194.5 square miles) while the population jumped 20 percent from 345,000 to 414,000. In that same time, the emergency calls rose 38 percent, to 45,859.
       Answering a question as to why calls have been increasing so rapidly, DuBay said that one “big spike” occurred about 20 years ago, when there was a push to get people to call 911 in emergencies. More recently, he pointed out, with more people lacking health insurance, it's become a common practice for them to call 911 for personal medical issues, knowing that the ambulance will take them to the hospital emergency room, which typically will write off their tab.
       Asked why such individuals don't just go to medical clinics (which would cost less), Dubay said that they often don't have transportation to get there.
       Also at the OWN meeting, Captain Steve Watz of Fire Station 5 talked about the services provided by his station and the department in general. People are invited to visit the station, he said, but pointed out that the place could be empty when the crew on duty is out on a call. Watz recommended that even people who live near the station should call 911 if they have an emergency. That way, they will be sure to get a response, even if it's not from Station 5.

Westside Pioneer article