Elgin fire union president: Staffing cuts caused delay in fatal fire response

  • The Elgin fire union president says recent staffing cuts caused a delayed response and gap in water supply to a fire in which David Moncatch, 63, and two dogs died Jan. 21.

      The Elgin fire union president says recent staffing cuts caused a delayed response and gap in water supply to a fire in which David Moncatch, 63, and two dogs died Jan. 21. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 2/14/2018 8:18 AM

The Elgin fire union president says overtime staffing cuts caused a delayed response and gap in water supply to a fire in which a 63-year-man died last month.

David Moncatch died Jan. 21 when heating tape caused a fire at his trailer home on the 400 block of Sadler Avenue. Officials at first said Moncatch died of smoke inhalation, but an autopsy showed he died of a heart attack, International Association of Firefighters Local 439 President Joe Galli said. Moncatch was found in the kitchen, apparently trying to get a fire extinguisher, Galli said. Two dogs also died.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Fire Chief Dave Schmidt defended the department's response, saying the first engine arrived two minutes after the call, and 15 firefighters arrived within eight minutes of travel time, the standard set by the National Fire Protection Association. A total of 23 firefighters responded, he said.

At the center of the dispute is how long it took the second fire engine to arrive and hook up to the hydrant about 150 feet from Moncatch's home.

When the second engine arrived, nearly nine minutes after the initial call, the first engine had run out of water -- the first time in recent memory that's happened, Galli and Schmidt agreed.

The radio recording shows a one-minute gap between firefighters reporting they were out of water and saying water was beginning to pump from the hydrant, Schmidt said.

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Galli said firefighters told him the actual gap was longer. "We are in a business where seconds count," he said.

Firefighters were about to enter the trailer when the water ran out, so they opted to enter after the water started spouting again, Galli said.

The staffing cut enacted Jan. 11 means there are 31 union firefighters -- two fewer than last year -- and a battalion chief on duty at all times across the city's seven fire stations.

A structure fire calls for three fire engines, one ladder truck and one ambulance, with more vehicles based on the severity of the fire, Schmidt and Galli said. Fire engines carry water and pump from hydrants, while ladder trucks carry equipment.

The first engine arrived from Station 5 at 804 Villa St. and started dousing the trailer, according to Schmidt and Galli. Moncatch's home is behind the station.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Before the staffing cut, the second engine and ladder truck -- if not on another call -- would have come from Station 1 at 550 Summit St., two miles away. The staffing cut, however, makes it so that crews there jump either in an engine or ladder truck, not both.

The ladder truck Jan. 21 came from Summit Street, and the second engine came from Station 4 at 599 S. McLean Blvd., nearly four miles away, because the next-closest engine at Station 6 was out on a call.

If the second engine had come from Summit Street, it would have arrived in time to have continuous water supply, Galli said. "We weren't able to send the closest engine because of our staffing model. And because of that, we will never know what could have been."

Firefighting entails juggling the unpredictability of calls, such as the one the engine from Station 6 was on when the fire at Moncatch's home took place, Schmidt said. "It's not an exact science, because in any given day, in excess of 50 percent of the time we are running multiple calls," he said.

Schmidt also pointed out the ladder truck from Summit Street -- where the second engine would have come from before the staffing cut -- arrived just one minute before the second engine on Jan. 21. The second engine that day "was still close enough. It was a respectable response time," he said.

The cuts are estimated to save $750,000 per year. The union argued the cut would affect the safety of firefighters and residents, and the matter is expected to be decided in arbitration.

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