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Pasco budget cuts could reduce number of firefighters on crews

Over the coming weeks, Pasco Fire Rescue officials must handle this fallout of the financial shortfall: The overtime budget has been cut so much that if enough firefighters are out one day, engines may show up to scenes with one less person aboard than they do now.

"Am I concerned?" said Assistant Chief Mike Ciccarello. "Absolutely."

"It's a serious safety issue not only for firefighters," said union president Ralph Grant, "but also an issue of time delay for service to the citizens."

So what's the big deal?

Even though Pasco has worked its way up in recent years to three-man engines, the county was still running one person short of the National Fire Protection Association standard that says a team of four firefighters should arrive on the same apparatus.

That first crew should arrive within four minutes of the call, and the follow-up crews within eight minutes, says Curt Varone, the association's division manager of public fire protection.

Eight minutes from the start of the fire is the key time frame for getting water inside a building and creating a "protective barrier" that rescuers and victims can use to exit, said Jonathan Moore, director of operations with the national office of the International Association of Firefighters union, to which Pasco firefighters belong.

One big reason behind having a truck staffed with at least four people? The "two-in, two-out rule," said Varone.

That means that two firefighters should not enter a burning building unless there are two more of them on the outside, ready to help out if something goes wrong. If two firefighters have to wait for another truck to bring two partners, he said, there could be a critical delay.

Regulations allow for exceptions — say a firefighter suspects someone is trapped inside — but if the first crews on the scenes show up routinely with only two people, "it's no longer an exception," said Varone.

In Pasco, the emphasis has been on getting people to the scene, even if they're not all on the same vehicles.

To cut costs this year, officials will start paying overtime only to bring on additional personnel if eight of the 23 engine companies fall to the two-man staffing levels.

So say a house catches fire on a day when the department is fully staffed. At least a dozen people are dispatched, says Ciccarello: Six via two engines, four via two rescue cars, one via a support vehicle and a battalion chief via a truck.

But as the overtime money drains away, some of those engines could be carrying only two people. So a third engine would likely be dispatched to help out.

Ciccarello said second and third engines typically arrive between five and nine minutes of the call.

At a recent business fire in Bayonet Point, for instance, three engines arrived within eight minutes of the call, the second two about four minutes after the first.

The bigger problems with arrival times are in the more sparsely populated parts of the county, though Chief Anthony Lopinto has said three of the rural stations — Tri-Community in northeast Pasco, San Antonio and Heritage Pines — will not fall down to two-man engines no matter how many people are out.

• • •

The four-person standard is widely accepted by national firefighting organizations, but its impact is difficult to quantify.

One study in 1990 out of Dallas found that, on every try, a team of five firefighters could perform certain tasks — such as filling the hose with water and getting it to a particular point — within a particular time frame, said Moore, of the national firefighters union group.

Four firefighters could accomplish those same tasks only 84 percent of the time, three about 70 percent of the time, he said.

Ciccarello and other department veterans, including union president Grant, came up in an agency that routinely sent only two people out on trucks to scenes.

He said it's hard to compare the outcomes of then vs. now.

But he said it's no doubt much more efficient to have more people on a scene quicker.

"Obviously if you're less efficient," he said, "there's probably a greater risk."

Moore said the best way to think of a firefighting scene is a "complicated ballet," where each person has a very particular task, whether it's ventilating a roof or making sure the pump is working. Each duty at the scene is time critical.

"While another truck may bring more people," Moore said, "it brings them to the party late."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Fast facts

The story so far

Pasco Fire Rescue managed to avoid layoffs this year, but officials reached what the chief called "a dead end" when they couldn't get enough money to save 30 vacant positions, which had been frozen amid the strong possibility of layoffs.

Those funded positions have been a source of money to pay overtime to keep certain staffing levels on their trucks.

Pasco commissioners leaned on the firefighters union for about $1.1 million in cost-saving concessions (the elimination of six paid holidays and the waiver of a 5 percent merit increase), but the union last month narrowly rejected the proposed contract that contained those concessions.

Pasco budget cuts could reduce number of firefighters on crews 10/03/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 3, 2009 9:42am]
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