Debate brewing on how to staff fire trucks in St. Pete

ST. PETERSBURG — The city fire department is dangerously understaffed, according to a district chief, risking the lives of firefighters and those they serve.

St. Petersburg Fire Rescue is the only major department in Tampa Bay that allows two-man crews on ladder trucks. Those crews need to show up in full gear — 50 pounds of fire-resistant bunker suits, air tanks and Nomex hoods — ready to wade into a blaze together to search for survivors as soon as they step off the truck.

That's why most agencies staff ladder trucks with at least three or four firefighters. Someone has to drive the fire truck, and they can't do it wearing all that gear.

But in St. Petersburg, a two-man ladder crew can't do much until the driver gets out and gets dressed.

District Chief Rich Johnson said a May 30 fire convinced him to go public with his concerns in a memo. That night, two paramedics pulled an injured man out of the blaze. He later died.

Johnson had wanted to send more firefighters inside the home to search for other victims, but the two-man ladder truck crew that arrived after the paramedics had to wait three minutes for the driver to get dressed.

No other victims were found, Johnson said. But what about next time?

"Short staffing truck companies is in essence 'setting them up to fail,' " Johnson wrote.

Fire Chief James Large defended the two-firefighter policy, which goes back to the 1980s.

Large said his concern isn't how many firefighters arrive on one particular truck — it's making sure enough firefighters arrive in the first place.

"Whether I put six men on a truck or two men on a truck, when there's a fire I make sure I have a minimum of 15 people show up," Large said. "If they get there on 15 trucks or one truck, I don't know what the risk is."

Johnson's June 2 memo sparked a scathing response from Large — who questioned Johnson's management of the fire — and further inflamed the department's relations with the firefighters' union.

Now the city is investigating to see if enough firefighters were on hand — and whether Johnson deployed them correctly.

• • •

The fire at 1634 1/2 29th Ave. N was reported at 11:53 p.m. The first firefighter on scene at 11:57 p.m. was Johnson.

What happened next is debated in three scathing memos Johnson and Large fired back at each other.

Two paramedics arrived just after Johnson. They entered the home and found Melvin McColister, 59, who wasn't breathing and had no pulse, Johnson said. The paramedics carried McColister out. He died at a hospital. A cause of death could not be learned Friday.

Johnson wrote that he wanted to send in four firefighters to search the smoke-filled structure. But when the ladder crew arrived, they couldn't go in with the paramedics because the driver wasn't dressed.

Large fired back in a June 5 memo: "I fail to see the correlation between your concerns over staffing levels and the outcome of this fire."

Large wrote that the search for survivors appeared delayed by "improper use of resources." Large also ordered a division chief to investigate the fire.

"I take issue with a District Chief suggesting that we set truck companies up to fail and place lives in jeopardy," Large wrote.

• • •

Johnson responded with a testy June 9 memo defending how he and the crew handled the fire. He also escalated his criticism of department policy. While Johnson acknowledged two-man ladder trucks have been used since the 1980s, he said their deployment has gone from occasional to all the time.

Johnson said an April 1 change in overtime rules left three of the city's four ladder trucks staffed with just two firefighters on May 30 — including the ladder truck at the scene of the fire.

Like all other city agencies, the fire department had to cut its budget. It reduced the minimum number of firefighters that need to be on duty to 72 from 80.

If less than the minimum show up for their 24-hour shift — they could be training, or out sick — the department can pay other firefighters overtime to fill in.

So the city now pays fewer overtime slots. Johnson said 72 isn't enough to fully staff the city.

It leaves the city's three Advanced Life Support engines with just three firefighters. That's crucial because ALS engines have paramedics. If they go to the hospital with a patient, the ALS engine can't operate with just two firefighters — unlike ladder trucks, the city requires that they have three crew on board.

The number 72 also leaves the city's four ladder trucks with just two firefighters. "It is now possible to have all truck companies staffed at two all day every day," Johnson wrote.

A St. Petersburg Times survey of other agencies found that four firefighters is the minimum on ladder trucks with Miami-Dade, Miami, Orlando and Clearwater. Closer to home, three is the minimum for ladder trucks in Pinellas Park and Tampa.

• • •

Large said it's unfair to compare ladder trucks in cities with more high-rises and industrial complexes to St. Petersburg, which he described as "predominately a bedroom a community."

He also said that he had to cut overtime to save jobs and that the city is staffed by more than the minimum number per shift. This weekend, for example, he said, 78 firefighters are on duty.

That allows four firefighters on all three ALS engines and three firefighters on two ladder trucks.

"I'm still sending enough people to the scene to accomplish whatever tasks the scene requires," Large said. "There's no additional risk."

Large said the emphasis on the job of ladder crews is misplaced. Each fire is different and requires a different response, Large said, and firefighters are trained to do different jobs.

"If they gave me the money tomorrow," Large said, "my minimum on a ladder truck would still be two."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8472.

Debate brewing on how to staff fire trucks in St. Pete 06/12/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 17, 2009 2:39pm]

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