Pasco County taxpayers may be paying more for fire protection this year, but so far they are getting less for their money: Over the weekend, four engines began running with fewer firefighters.
That means those particular engines could roll up to scenes with just two firefighters on board — one fewer person than they have now and two fewer than a national standard for getting enough personnel on scene to battle structure fires quickly and safely.
Chief Anthony Lopinto said the decision to reduce crew sizes on four of the county's 21 engines results from this: The firefighters union is demanding merit raises that even the additional tax revenue won't cover.
The higher tax rate approved by county commissioners last month — $1.43 per $1,000 in taxable property, a 23-cent increase over last fiscal year — essentially kept the Fire Rescue Department whole, covering increased health and pension costs plus the costs of hiring 15 people to reduce overtime.
"I'm preparing for the fiscal reality of that," Lopinto said of the proposed union raises. "We did this early on so it's not drastic."
Firefighters gave up their merit increases last year. For this year, they propose getting only 60 percent of what they would be due if full raises were in place.
Union president Ralph Grant said that concession will save $223,225 in the first year and $480,000 in the second year.
He said officials jumped the gun on reducing crew sizes so soon; he said they could have waited until new hires come on to see if that reduces overtime costs enough to free up money to pay for everything.
The 15 new hires are expected to finish orientation by January. Another 14 new hires who are filling once-frozen vacancies will come on board this month.
"We're still trying to resolve the solutions," said Grant. "We are trying to work it out. What he's doing is pre-emptive."
Lopinto said county officials are still crunching the numbers to see how much the union's proposal will cost them. He also said he did not have a figure yet on how much the reduced crews on the four engines will save.
The engines with reduced crews include one from the station behind Kmart in New Port Richey and one from Centennial Road in east Pasco. The other two will be on a rotating basis, depending on how many firefighters call in sick on a particular day.
The main reason that experts say engines should be staffed with at least four people? The "two-in, two-out" rule.
That means two firefighters should not enter a burning building unless there are two more of them on the outside, ready to help if something goes wrong. If two firefighters have to wait for another truck to bring two partners, there could be a critical delay.
Under Lopinto's leadership, Pasco Fire Rescue had worked its way up from two workers per truck to three. The emphasis has been sending rescue cars and other support vehicles with the engines to get enough personnel on scene.
But requiring that every engine have three firefighters means dipping into overtime if enough firefighters are out sick or on vacation on any given shift. Officials will save money — in overtime salaries for up to four workers per shift — if they don't require three people on those four engines.
About 15 percent of the 47,000 calls each year to Pasco Fire Rescue are for fires. Traffic accidents would not require a backup engine to respond, Lopinto said.
If rescue cars can't get two more firefighters to a scene, Lopinto said the engine can call for backup from the closest station.
"What we'll expect is that they'll have the same number of people responding to the call," he said. "Is it preferable to have those people early on? Yes, it is. But we're dealing with financial realities."
Grant, the union president, said the potential delays — say, if backup help is on another call — aren't worth the savings. "We're dead set against it," he said.
Grant said the union is insisting on partial raises this year because Pasco firefighters are among the lowest paid in the area. Other county employees did not get raises, but Grant said, "They don't have a contract."
Grant said he told county administrator John Gallagher when they met for negotiations four months ago to plan on raises. "I told Mr. Gallagher to budget for it, and they didn't," he said. "We're trying to work with them."
County personnel director Barbara DeSimone said she's hoping administrators and the union can come to some sort of agreement in coming weeks. But she said raises are a tough sell in this economy.
Commissioners, she said, "aren't going to increase taxes to pay for raises."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.