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updated: 3/3/2013 10:28 AM

Tighter budgets, staffing straining suburban fire departments

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  • The Lombard Fire Department aims to have three ambulances staffed and ready to respond to medical emergencies at all times, but when personnel falls below 16 firefighters on a shift, one ambulance remains unstaffed.

       The Lombard Fire Department aims to have three ambulances staffed and ready to respond to medical emergencies at all times, but when personnel falls below 16 firefighters on a shift, one ambulance remains unstaffed.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • The Lombard Fire Department is two firefighters short of its full authorized staffing of 63, which fire department officials say sometimes makes it difficult to keep a third ambulance staffed and ready to respond to emergencies.

       The Lombard Fire Department is two firefighters short of its full authorized staffing of 63, which fire department officials say sometimes makes it difficult to keep a third ambulance staffed and ready to respond to emergencies.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Assembling adequate personnel to fight structure fires can strain suburban fire departments, some of which are running short of their authorized staffing levels.

      Assembling adequate personnel to fight structure fires can strain suburban fire departments, some of which are running short of their authorized staffing levels.
    Daily Herald file photo

  • Four of 10 suburban fire departments surveyed by the Daily Herald are running short of their authorized staffing levels, which means they may rely more on aid from other communities to respond to structure fires.

      Four of 10 suburban fire departments surveyed by the Daily Herald are running short of their authorized staffing levels, which means they may rely more on aid from other communities to respond to structure fires.
    Daily Herald file photo

  • Video: Fire Dept. challenges on ABC7

 
 

Mounting pension obligations and tightly drawn budgets are putting strains on staffing at many suburban fire departments, officials say, including some that already are working short-handed and others that are fully staffed but find themselves regularly sending firefighters to help other towns.

In a "do more with less" world, four of 10 suburban fire departments surveyed by the Daily Herald are running at least one firefighter short of authorized staffing levels.

And officials say diminished staffing in communities such as Elgin, Geneva, Libertyville and Lombard could cause problems because doing more with less isn't always possible when it comes to battling fires or responding to ambulance calls.

They say it takes a certain number of people to perform vital tasks such as starting hoses to get water to a burning building, suppressing and ventilating fires, and searching for and rescuing victims.

"It takes so many people, physically, to do the job," Lombard firefighter/paramedic Tom Tulipano said.

Fewer firefighters on a scene means it takes longer to accomplish such jobs in a business where lost time can mean more injuries to people, more damage to property and higher insurance rates.

Firefighters say they could take that message to the public and build considerable concern about public safety in communities where departments are anything less than fully staffed. But they say it's not that simple.

There are systems in place to receive help from neighboring communities when any fire department responds to a structure fire. So short-staffed squads still get the bodies they need to tackle an emergency -- they just may come from out of town.

That mutual aid, however, comes with its own issues, says Mike Falese, Bartlett fire chief and president of the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association.

"If we depend on mutual aid and automatic aid to replace our resources too much, then the neighboring communities are subsidizing our fire service," Falese said. "If I scale back staffing, that equation can become fractured. It's a fine balance."

In these financially delicate times, he says, short-handed departments are not yet filling vacancies, while fully staffed departments are watching closely how often their resources are pulled past their borders.

Running short

When an alarm sounds for a structure fire, standards set by the National Fire Protection Association say 15 trained firefighters should be on the scene within eight minutes to begin extinguishing the blaze before it reaches "flashover," the point when an entire room becomes engulfed and flames spread.

Four firefighters provide hose lines; two support those hoses; one supplies water; two make up a search-and-rescue team; two focus on ventilation; one works as an aerial operator; and one takes charge as commander. The final two are a rapid intervention team, ready to plunge in if any of the other 13 need to be rescued.

Together, the 15 make up a firefighting team following a "scientific approach to the most efficient level of staffing," said Ken Willette, division manager of public fire protection for NFPA.

Assembling that kind of staffing is a challenge for all but the largest suburban fire departments; many operate with fewer than 15 firefighters on duty. The West Dundee department, which dropped its shift minimum to five last April, has only one-third of the recommended number of firefighters ready at any given time.

Luckily for small or short-staffed departments, NFPA standards say nothing about which jurisdiction firefighters must come from, allowing collaboration in the form of automatic or mutual aid to ensure adequate response on every fire call.

"We can't meet it (the NFPA standard) on our own," said Libertyville Chief Rich Carani, whose department will be running one firefighter short until a new budget begins May 1. "It would be great to, but I don't think it's necessary because we can work with our neighbors. It would be extremely expensive to try to meet it on our own."

New partnerships are cropping up as fire chiefs place more value on collaboration. One new agreement brings an engine from Elgin to any fire in West Dundee, and a truck from West Dundee to fires in some areas of Elgin.

"We're taking those steps to work closer together with our neighboring departments, almost acting more like one department," West Dundee Chief Randy Freise said.

But the two collaborating departments are both running short. Elgin's $23.7 million fire department budget funds 132 sworn personnel, but that's one below its authorized staffing of 133.

"That's what makes it interesting," Freise said. "Everyone is relying more heavily on automatic aid, and at the same time, everyone is reducing their manpower."

Sharing the workload among several communities is a fine way to meet response standards, but the challenge is making aid agreements mutually beneficial, Willette said.

Helping each other evenly is not necessarily happening in the suburbs. Six of the 10 departments surveyed -- Arlington Heights, Lake Zurich, Libertyville, Naperville, North Aurora and West Dundee -- helped their neighbors more times in 2012 than they received such assistance. Sometimes the differences were significant.

"We want to help our neighbors," said Naperville Chief Mark Puknaitis, whose department provided mutual aid 106 times in 2012 and received it only 22. "We understand that at times, we're kind of like the big brother in the area here; we have to give more than we receive."

The numbers game

Even with just one fewer firefighter on staff, chiefs say it becomes more difficult to meet response standards and be ready for medical emergencies, mainly because staffing is a numbers game.

It starts with the number of sworn personnel, divided by three shifts. From the number assigned to each shift, subtract a few for vacation, another for injury or sick time, and possibly more for long-term disability. If that number is not at or above the shift minimum, add some money for overtime payments.

It's a complicated equation with lots of moving parts, and "it gets harder when you have fewer on shift," said Geneva Chief Steve Olson, whose department is short one full-time firefighter from its authorized staffing of 21 full-time and 45 part-time personnel.

Part-timers fill gaps in staffing in Geneva, where a paid-on-call firefighter is on duty at both stations 24/7, as well as in North Aurora and West Dundee. Chiefs in those areas say part-time personnel are valuable because their salaries fit in more easily as they try to balance budgets.

The staffing equation continues as chiefs look to allocate personnel to serve on ambulance crews, fire trucks or engines, or as "jump companies," which respond with an ambulance or a fire vehicle depending on the call.

Lombard's fire department responds to more ambulance calls than fires. In 2012, 4,811 of its 7,917 total calls were for ambulance service, and the department needed help from its neighbors in 191 of those cases.

Lombard is two firefighters short of its full authorized staffing of 63, and union members say filling those positions would go a long way toward meeting residents' emergency medical needs with less outside assistance.

"We're the insurance policy. If the manning is short, something down the road can cause injury or death to the citizens or a fireman," said Mike Fetzer, a firefighter/paramedic and vice president of contracts for the firefighters union. "The lack of manning can really cause a lot of problems."

Lombard Chief Paul DiRienzo said filling the two vacancies would allow the department to consistently have three ambulances available -- instead of sometimes only two -- to respond when multiple calls come at once.

Finding balance

While fire chiefs advocate for full staffing, some elected officials say they worry about the costs of adding another firefighter -- and his or her salary, benefits, pension, training and equipment costs -- to the books.

Lombard's finance department estimates it would cost more than $110,000 to hire one new firefighter on a $54,800 salary because of costs including $17,000 for health insurance, $19,000 for pensions and $14,700 for training, and equipment. Some trustees are hesitant to add those expenses to the department's $10.5 million budget.

The NFPA's Willette says communities with short-handed fire departments should conduct risk assessments so decision-makers and the public can understand how staffing decisions affect response times and reliance on outside assistance.

Fire insurance premiums also can be affected because personnel is one of the factors considered by the Insurance Services Office, or ISO, an independent organization that analyzes fire departments and rates communities accordingly. Insurance companies use ISO ratings in pricing fire insurance, so better fire protection can lead to lower rates.

Falese, with the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association, said suburban departments are finding ways to meet community needs despite lower staffing or higher demand for help from nearby municipalities.

Some are looking to consolidation or unification, especially when they think it can create efficiencies, improve response times or decrease costs, Falese said. Functional consolidation already is taking place as departments share certain pieces of equipment or conduct joint training sessions.

"We're teaching and adapting to the lower levels of staffing in a safe manner," said Lake Zurich Chief David Wheelock, whose department of 55 sworn personnel is temporarily running one short while in the process of replacing a retiree.

"We're training differently, safely. We've had no rise in injuries," Wheelock said. "In terms of our own department, I believe we're meeting the challenge."

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