When fire departments face budget cuts, they often have to make tough choices just to get by. Staffing is one area of fire department operations frequently affected by budget constraints. This impacts human capital which always has direct impact on a departments achievable efficacy.
As we have previously reported, local political leaders are often comfortable cutting funding to their fire departments which has a direct impact on public safety, as well as the safety of firefighters.
Fire departments across the country are now facing unprecedented staffing shortages which has fire chiefs and other public safety officials worried about response times and the overall safety of the public. Here are just a few examples of how fire department budget cuts negatively impact public safety and put firefighters at heightened risk.
Staffing shortages lead to overworked firefighters
The city of Greenwood, Indiana has seen an increase of 20,000 residents since 1998, but the local fire department has hardly been able to keep up. The department currently has 39 full-time firefighters and 110 part-time firefighters. Chief Darrin Hoggatt has been pushing hard for more full-time firefighters and was granted three more in the most recent 2019 budget. However, as the Chief notes, anytime new full-time firefighters are brought on, they are forced to cut part-time positions which means overall staffing levels actually go down. This has put a strain on his department and caused him to rely on neighboring departments for assistance.
In Greenwood, 20 firefighters are assigned to every 12 hour shift, which presents a safety problem. According to the National Fire Protection Agency, at least 14 firefighters should be present during single-family home fires, while 27 are needed at larger structure fires. That means that during any 12 hour shift, the Greenwood Fire Department only has the capacity to respond to one single-family home fire at a time. This has left the department to rely on neighboring departments for assistance.
Staffing shortages create lower response times
In Baltimore, the local fire union has been warning residents of increased response times as the department deals with a staffing shortage. In one day, the union reported that response times to two fires were delayed because local engines had been reassigned and relocated due to a “critical alert.” The Baltimore Firefighters IAFF Local 734 took to Twitter to warn residents about the shortages. “They say lightning never strikes twice,” the union tweeted. “Well, today it has, Engine 51 is still out of service (9hrs) on the critical alert while homes within blocks of their station are on fire.” The Baltimore Fire Department, for their part, noted that their response times are below the national average but that it is actively working to address their staffing shortage.
When fire departments are forced to focus on areas and services to cut, they are prevented from focusing on what really matters: public safety. That is why local and state leaders should put a higher priority on ensuring that their fire departments are adequately staffed and equipped to respond to emergencies. Firefighters put their lives on the line every day and the least we can do is ensure they have the resources they need to protect the public.