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City facing cuts to fire service

Sun., Dec. 9, 2012, midnight

The city’s only two-person rescue company could be shifted to Fire Station 9 on the South Hill, replacing the three-person engine crew. (Colin Mulvany)
The city’s only two-person rescue company could be shifted to Fire Station 9 on the South Hill, replacing the three-person engine crew. (Colin Mulvany)

Proposed 2013 budget would eliminate three-person engine company on South Hill

Less than a week after Spokane firefighters pulled two people from a burning home, the Spokane City Council is considering a budget that will essentially end first-response firefighting capabilities at one of its 15 fire stations.

Cuts to the city’s fire service likely is the most controversial part of the proposed 2013 city budget that the City Council is scheduled to consider Monday night.

If approved as currently proposed, the number of firefighters always on duty in the city will fall from 61 to 58, and the three-person fire engine company at Station 9, 1722 S. Bernard St., would be eliminated, replaced by shifting the city’s two-person rescue company from Fire Station 1 downtown.

The total number of firefighters will fall from 274 this year to 252 next year.

“From my perspective, the system is about as minimally staffed as it can be,” said Fire Chief Bobby Williams.

The change would be the first time the city has lost first-response firefighting capability at a station since the late 1980s, when a North Side station, No. 10, was changed to house only a rescue squad. That station closed soon after.

Williams said that given the budget reality, shifting the rescue company was the best option because it maintains a company that can provide basic life support at the South Hill station. More than 80 percent of the calls in the station’s primary service area were medically related last year.

“We have the ability to save and impact more lives through medical response than we do through fire response,” Williams said.

Station 9 was chosen for reduced service because the station currently has fewer calls than most and – unlike stations in the Indian Trail  Neighborhood and on the West Plains – is in closer proximity to other stations.

Among the negative consequences is a possible delay in the amount of time it will take until firefighters can enter a burning home in areas nearby the station, even if they know people are trapped inside. Rules don’t allow firefighters to enter burning buildings unless at least three are on scene.

Moving the rescue company out of downtown also will increase pressure on fire companies serving the city’s two downtown fire stations.

If the rescue company is first to arrive at a fire, Williams said, firefighters could assist people from the outside the home and assess the situation so crews are ready to enter once more companies arrive.

“They’re going to do what they can safely without violating the law,” Williams said.

The rescue company that would shift from Station 1 is unique within the city. It rolls to every structure fire citywide, and would continue doing so from Station 9. The company is in charge of making sure fire scenes are as safe as possible. The unit is also part of the department’s hazardous materials team and assists in vehicle collisions that require extrication.

The reduction of staff likely could increase average response times, but Williams said it’s hard to say by how much.

Finger-pointing for the cuts is a loud part of the debate. A majority of the City Council blames the Spokane Fire Fighters Union and state labor law for a contract finalized in October that added $1.3 million to the city budget, mostly as a result of increased medical benefit costs.

A minority of the City Council places blame at least partly on Mayor David Condon, who persuaded the council to decline to accept the 1 percent property tax increase the city almost always incorporates as part of the budget. 

Fire Lt. Mark Vietzke, president of the union, said some council members forget that while the cost of firefighter compensation rises next year, the city won a major concession by winning the guarantee from the union that the cost of providing medical benefits after 2013 won’t rise any faster than 4 percent annually. In some recent years, medical costs have spiked by more than 10 percent.

Vietzke said the union worked with fire administrators to find ways to preserve a three-person company at Station 9.

“We want to see the engine stay in service,” Vietzke said. “The citizens are not going to get the same service as far as fire protection. That’s for sure.”

Accepting the tax increase might have been enough to keep four of the 12 jobs needed to save the three-person company, but that could have forced the department to eliminate the rescue company. Williams said that would mean multiple companies would need to be trained to perform rescue company duties, creating significant logistical problems.

Beyond the dozen jobs from the eliminated engine company, many of the lost positions in the department are vacant reserve firefighter positions or belong to firefighters who are retiring. Williams said he will avoid layoffs at least in the short term by keeping on three firefighters in danger of losing their jobs in hopes that their salaries and benefits will be cheaper than paying for overtime.

Condon said he’s not inclined to raise taxes for specific departments until he completes plans to “fundamentally change” the way they do business. He said he didn’t request the 1 percent property tax increase because plans to make substantial changes in the police and fire services won’t be ready until the 2014 budget.

“I didn’t sign any no-new-tax pledge,” he said in an interview last month. “But I said I would not ask for a tax increase without a very deliberate plan.”

City Council President Ben Stuckart said citizens will be hurt by the decline in firefighting and police positions in the 2013 budget.

“We know that services are going to suffer. It’s not OK to say they may suffer,” Stuckart said.

Condon has proposed a flat, $161 million general fund budget, which requires about $10 million in cuts. The general fund pays for police, fire, libraries and other services that are funded mostly by taxes, as opposed to utility fees. The proposal eliminates 100 jobs, though two-thirds of them already were vacant, including all 19 of the police officer positions lost.

Stuckart plans to propose three revenue sources at Monday’s meeting to preserve a few fire or police jobs. One would be to raise the property tax by 1 percent, even though the council already rejected such a hike.

Another would transfer money from the police pension fund budget, which he said is currently overfunded.

He also will ask the council to divert more city inmates from the the Spokane County jail system to home monitoring. Stuckart said that would save $360,000.

Stuckart said the home fire in Hillyard on Tuesday is proof that the city’s fire stations should be staffed by companies that can enter burning buildings. Firefighters rescued a 3-year-old and his father from the home.

“I find it a good example of why proper fire response is a service that the citizens deserve.”

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