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Oldsmar fire staff too small, city told

City firefighters said Monday that they do not always have enough people to respond to fires or other emergencies adequately.

An official with the firefighters' union said the city has turned down a request to hire a new firefighter.

City officials said the decision not to include an extra firefighter's salary in the 1996-97 proposed budget was made for financial reasons only. The union official said the situation could put firefighters and residents at risk.

"It only takes one call for me to be killed," said Dean O'Nale, an Oldsmar firefighter and vice president of Local 2980 of the International Association of Firefighters. "It only takes one call for not enough people to be there to do the job."

Marnie Burns, the assistant city manager, said the city had carefully considered fire Chief Scott McGuff's request for an additional firefighter, but "in terms of allocating scarce resources, not all the needs can be met as soon as we would like."

The issue is raised periodically, especially in small cities, said Dwaine Booth, a fire coordinator with the Pinellas County Fire Administration. He recommends that cities facing the issue do a risk analysis to see if additional firefighters are needed.

Council member Daryl Landis has asked that the issue be addressed at the Aug. 6 council meeting. "If even part of their story is true, then we have something serious to consider here," Landis said.

Council members could decide to budget the funding for a new firefighter.

The Oldsmar Fire Department has enough staff to have four firefighters each on two 24-hour shifts. The third, or "A," shift is staffed with only three firefighters.

The potential for danger arises, O'Nale said, when one of those three firefighters is on vacation or sick. That leaves only two firefighters to handle emergency calls for Oldsmar during a 24-hour period.

Mutual aid provides for backup responses from fire departments in other communities, such as Palm Harbor and Safety Harbor, but the two Oldsmar firefighters would usually be the first on the scene.

Those crucial first few minutes, O'Nale said, could mean the difference between life and death.

"It's a safety risk not only for citizens, but it is a safety risk for us as firefighters responding there," O'Nale said.

From Oct. 1 to July 1, the Oldsmar Fire Department responded to 125 fire calls, of which 34 were fires that had to be extinguished. Most of the department's calls are medical emergencies, such as heart attacks, or auto accidents.

The National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Mass., recommends that at least four firefighters be on the scene of a fire before anyone is allowed into a building to fight the fire or rescue a victim. In the case of a structure fire, Oldsmar's A shift would have to wait for help to arrive.

O'Nale said the firefighters are disappointed the fire chief's request was turned down. "It's disheartening," he said. "We are not asking for more benefits or pay. We just want enough people to accomplish the job."

Firefighters plan to ask the council to add money for a new firefighter or pay overtime to cover shifts with at least three firefighters at all times, O'Nale said.

Landis said the firefighters' concerns should be examined.

"Is the chance of lives being lost, property being destroyed or firefighters being injured worth less than $30,000 in salary?" Landis said.

"When it comes to loss of life and property, I think that's peanuts."