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St. Petersburg idles fire units to help deal with cash crunch

St Petersburg Fire Rescue firefighter paramedics Sean Brennan and Joy Albury examine an inebriated man found on a downtown sidewalk Thursday on Fourth Street N in downtown.
Published Mar. 30, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — When blazes erupt anywhere in the city, Squad 1 is one of the first trucks racing to the scene with extra oxygen bottles and tools to support firefighters.

But the all-purpose vehicle has been parked for more than 1,281 hours in the last 10 months.

And it's not broken.

It's part of the under-the-radar way that St. Petersburg Fire & Rescue has trimmed money in the wake of budget cuts as it tries to balance public safety with financial realities.

For the last two years, the department has been "browning out" equipment — idling vehicles and apparatus for several hours at a time or an entire day — instead of paying overtime to cover firefighters on vacation or others who call in sick.

St. Petersburg residents and businesses likely know little about brownouts since firefighters arrive when 911 calls are made.

But the firefighters' union called the brownouts a safety issue.

"We've been lucky," said Michael Blank, president of Local 747, the St. Petersburg Association of Firefighters. "That's all."

Brownouts are a controversial tool used by fire departments across the country for immediate savings. Many residents rally against them and have blamed fire deaths on idling expensive equipment.

Fire Chief Jim Large stressed that no entire station has ever been closed as in other cities. The department's 12 engines — the first units dispatched to emergencies — are never idled, he said.

"None of us are happy about it," he said. "When you have no fluff and make cuts, there's an impact."

Between June 2012 and March 22, the department's 27 trucks, engines and squads sat for 3,263 hours, totalling 136 days.

Response times still average about 4.5 minutes, Large said. Brownouts can cause delays for secondary units — such as a ladder truck to reach tall buildings — going to scenes.

Several City Council members learned of the brownouts from the Tampa Bay Times.

"If we're doing this, it should be transparent," said Council member Charlie Gerdes. "I think we're taking a chance. I've never heard of them before."

Leslie Curran agreed, saying: "People need to know what budget cuts do to departments. The public needs to know."

• • •

More brownouts could come as a new budget season approaches.

Mayor Bill Foster has been meeting weekly with department heads to prepare next year's budget, which starts in October. He has ordered deeper cuts.

Large said he never expected the "temporary cuts" to enter a third budget cycle. The overtime budget fluctuated from $807,980 in 2011 to $339,180 in 2012 to $467,400 in 2013.

The money cannot be entirely eliminated in the Fire Department. Small amounts of overtime are built into paychecks because of the 24-hour shifts that firefighters work.

Still, more cuts could mean laying off an entire company of 15 firefighters. Large says he doesn't want to leave a neighborhood vulnerable.

"How do you pick a neighborhood to put at risk?" he asked.

Each morning, district chiefs must find ways to avoid paying overtime when staffing levels drop below the minimum of 73 firefighters. Units might sit for a day or only hours.

If district chiefs pay overtime to keep units in service, Large must approve the decision. He vows that the city is protected.

"It's a shift-by-shift decision," Large said.

The first unit to sit is Squad 1, housed at Station 1 at 455 Eighth Street S.

Besides carrying extra oxygen bottles, the unit allows firefighters to refill tanks at scenes. It also responds to hazardous material calls and provides electricity to illuminate scenes.

Squad 1 has been parked an average of 128 hours a month since June, records show.

The second unit to sit is Truck 9, a ladder unit at Station 9 on 475 66th Street N.

The high-rise aerial provides coverage to the city's west side. But it has been idle 457 hours since June, averaging 45 hours a month.

Up to five units could be parked sometimes if firefighters are training, Large said. But those units can be back in service at a moment's notice — browned out vehicles can't.

Risks will increase the longer brownouts continue, Blank said, adding: "We've been able to do what we have to do without a major loss of life or property."

• • •

While firefighters trim overtime, OT hours are more abundant in the Police Department.

In 2011, the city budgeted $4.5 million for police overtime. The figure dropped to $4.4 million in 2012 and $4.3 million in 2013.

The City Council wants to give them even more money.

In January, the group held its first budget meeting for fiscal 2014. At that time, Council Chairman Karl Nurse said he wanted to know what Police Chief Chuck Harmon would do "if an extra $500,000 to $1 million was added to his agency's $91 million budget."

The council also said two of its biggest priorities for the year include hiring more cops and giving pay raises to city workers.

Foster and the City Council increased property taxes to plug a $10 million shortfall last year. Pools, parks and libraries have faced reduced hours as officials seek ways to save money.

The city currently faces a $2.8 million deficit for the remainder of this year. Foster has ordered departments to reduce expenses by 1 percent.

During a Budget, Finance & Taxation Committee meeting on Thursday, council members grilled Foster on police and fire expenses. Both departments, he said, have the most difficulties cutting costs.

After the meeting, Nurse said Foster told him about the brownouts about 10 days ago. At that time, the Times requested a meeting with Large to discuss the issue.

Nurse said he has no problem with brownouts since fires have decreased in the city.

"I think it's a pretty low-level risk when you compare fire calls to police calls," Nurse said. "On the police end, we have real issues going on. It's probably easier to squeeze fire than police."

Mark Puente can be reached at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8459. Follow him at Twitter @markpuente.

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