Fire chief says staff shortage is risky 60 firefighters needed for safety of workers, residents, says head

November 26, 1995|By Ed Heard | Ed Heard,SUN STAFF

About half the time a fire truck responds to an emergency in Howard County, only one or two firefighters are aboard. Fire Chief James Heller calls such chronic under-staffing a risk to workers and residents, and adequate staffing doesn't seem possible any time soon.

So by year's end he plans to order Howard rescue workers not to enter a burning dwelling unless there are at least four firefighters present.

"We have to be concerned about safety," Chief Heller said, although he couldn't recall any injuries caused by the short-staffing.

The chief says he needs about 60 more workers. But augmenting his staff would require a tax increase -- an unpopular request at any time, but even more so at a time when County Executive Charles I. Ecker has vowed a 12 percent cut in government spending.

The fire department's 206 employees are simply not enough for this county, which has a hundred times as many residents, Chief Heller said. About 60 new firefighters cross-trained as emergency medical technicians would bring the department to adequate levels, he said.

"We never achieved what we thought was reasonable staffing," Chief Heller said. "It's a significant issue for us."

Fire engines run about half of their 40,000 emergency calls each year with only one or two workers on board, the chief said. And ladder trucks operate 30 percent of the time with fewer than the four firefighters recommended.

National standards suggest at least four firefighters on most vehicles, preferably more on larger ladder trucks, which require more maneuvering, said George Burke, a spokesman for the International Association of Firefighters in Washington D.C.

"When you drop the number of firefighters, you reduce the effectiveness," Mr. Burke said. "They fatigue quicker and can't do as much. Even when you reduce the number, the tasks do not change."

Though funds to fill 14 vacancies and hire nine new firefighters were included in this year's budget, Chief Heller said those new employees probably won't be in place until after March.

"That's extremely unacceptable," said Sgt. Kevin Henry, president of the Howard County Professional Firefighters Association union.

The new positions budgeted are "just the tip of the iceberg," said Sergeant Henry. "If we hire one-third of what we really need, how much is it going to help? Not at all."

He said union officials are preparing a report detailing the strain of under-staffing on firefighters. He hopes the report will get support from county officials for changes.

Mr. Ecker, who approved funds for those coming positions, said, "I don't think public safety is jeopardized with the shortages."

At the same time fire officials are calling for more workers, Mr. Ecker is trying to reduce government spending by 12 percent over the next 20 months -- cuts that could result in layoffs in other departments.

But he has said that public safety departments such as police and fire -- which together account for a quarter of the current $111 million budget -- would largely be unaffected.

Chief Heller wants to increase staffing to ensure three workers on fire engines, four on ladder trucks and two on ambulances. And he wants those levels maintained in at least nine of the county's 11 stations, which would then boost career fire personnel to 265 during the next few years.

But such plans would require a tax increase.

The County Council voted in favor of a 2-cent increase in the Metropolitan District Fire Tax last spring. But that vote came after Chairman Charles C. Feaga said he thought fire officials wanted to arrive at scenes too quickly and that it is sometimes better to "let the building burn and keep the fire from spreading rather than bring out a lot of extra equipment."

Though staffing is "insufficient," Chief Heller said units from different stations assist each other and work together to fight fires.

"We dispatch other equipment to supplement [firefighters on the scene]," the chief said.

Such attitudes about firefighting leave many firefighters such as Phil Blaney on edge when a service call is broadcast and he's one of only three people in Ellicott City's Bethany station. Each call offers some unknown challenge for which he fears he may not be prepared -- like a large factory fire.

"You don't know exactly what you're getting into when you start out," he said. "We have to do just what we can do at the time until we get assistance."

Medic Franklin Johnson said firefighters are uneasy about the staff shortage. The department's 175 volunteer firefighters are helpful, he said, but career firefighters have more training.

"You don't have to be a rocket scientist to realize that this [staffing shortage] poses a danger to both citizens and firefighters," he said.

Under-staffing makes firefighters more vulnerable in a profession which they already risk their lives.

"There's a price to pay," Chief Heller said. "We hope our people would use common sense and not place themselves in danger if there's not sufficient people there."

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