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How many firefighters should staff a ladder truck?

One thing I learned from visiting Fire Station 4 in St. Petersburg is that they don't use the old alarm bell any more. It's still there on the wall, a big brass thing designed to wake the dead. But now they use an insistent chime, more like a doorbell, or a department-store signal.

Truck 4, which is based at the station at 2501 Fourth St. N, is one of four big ladder trucks operated by St. Petersburg Fire Rescue. Its ladder and firefighting platform can extend to 100 feet.

This truck also is what firefighters call a "quint," which means it has several different uses — ladder, pumping, deployment of hoses, ground ladders and so forth.

The immediate debate about Truck 4 and the city's other ladder trucks is how many firefighters should ride them. St. Petersburg has a minimum crew of two, whereas many departments employ four, or at least three.

On June 2, a district chief (there are six district chiefs, two on duty at a time, dividing the city into north and south) wrote an unusually blunt memo to fire Chief James Large. He said having a two-member crew on Truck 4 had reduced the number of firefighters immediately available to enter a May 30 fire in which an occupant died.

"Four firefighters (instead of two) immediately searching a structure in heavy smoke conditions is obviously far more effective," wrote the district chief, Rich Johnson.

The problem is that the ladder-truck driver can't drive in full gear; he or she doesn't get totally equipped with air tanks and such until arriving on the scene.

Johnson's memo set off a lively exchange within St. Petersburg Fire Rescue, an inquiry from the Mayor's Office, and an internal review, as well as making front-page news. St. Petersburg already has controversy over its level of police staffing, after all. Is there a penny-pinching problem in fire rescue?

(One bit of context: District chiefs are part of the union contract, not exempt top management. This is hardly the first time that management and labor have disagreed about the levels of staffing in public safety departments.)

Large's position is that every fire in St. Petersburg gets at least three engines, a ladder truck and a rescue vehicle. Typically that puts 15 or so responders on the scene -— regardless of how many of arrived via the ladder truck.

In April, as part of budget cuts, the city reduced its minimum staffing level from 80 firefighters on duty at any given time to 72 before calling in folks on overtime. That's why two-member ladder-truck crews (which have been in use since the 1980s) are more common.

But Large says that St. Petersburg's decision was to keep all of its equipment available, rather than to shut down trucks or engines for the arbitrary goal of keeping X firefighters apiece on the rest.

I see both sides. The fire chief's argument makes sense — the test is how many firefighters fight a fire, not how many got there via each truck. On the other hand, when any single truck pulls up, who doesn't want it to be ready?

Behind all this are a mayor and City Council making budget decisions. Behind them are the voters and taxpayers, who pass Amendment 1 and demand property-tax cuts, yet who one day may find their homes, if not their lives, in the hands of these 72 on-duty men and women. I wonder, on that awful day, how many of them will be thinking: "Good thing I'm not paying for 80!"

How many firefighters should staff a ladder truck? 06/15/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 15, 2009 7:18pm]
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