April 25, 2013

After Budget Cuts, Ithaca Fire Department Confronts Challenges

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Five months after Ithaca’s Common Council approved a budget reducing the number of city firefighters by two, firefighters say it has been a challenge to maintain the Ithaca Fire Department’s already-strained workforce.

“When we do have fires and extrications, there are fewer people in safety roles, fewer people to see what’s happening,” IFD Lieutenant Tom Basher said. “Ultimately, the chief is responsible, so it burdens him. Now, he’s making sure [people are safe], so the workload gets increased for the fire chief.”

Despite protests from members of Ithaca’s fire and police departments last fall, Common Council approved Mayor Svante Myrick’s ’09 proposed budget — which reduced the number of firefighters and police — to close a $3-million deficit in the City of Ithaca.

No firefighters were laid off, but two deputy chief positions — both vacant because of retirements — were left unfilled, according to Basher. Deputies typically handle more administrative tasks, ensuring that trucks are inspected and that firefighters have their physical examinations, he said.

The department avoided laying off firefighters by reevaluating its budget and reallocating resources, but it was left with “no excess” in its workforce, said Tom Parsons, chief of the IFD.

“If anyone retires or goes off work for an extended period, their positions may have to be filled with overtime,” he said. “It’s a little complicated, given that we don’t know will retire, and when — that’s the challenge this budget creates.”

Though national standards dictate that departments send at least 15 firefighters to the site of a residential fire, the Ithaca department has long been understaffed, sending out a minimum of 11 firefighters — something Parsons emphasized is not unusual for fire departments in small towns.

The department receives about 5,000 calls a year compared to about 3,000 when Parsons began working there in 1985. Because of this increase in calls, the department should be increasing its manpower, Basher said.

“We run with two people on a fire truck — you can’t reduce us anymore,” he said. “We are on bare bones.”

Many of the calls the department receives are not for serious emergencies and are manageable with the staffing the department has, according to Parsons. But, he added, there are other emergencies where “we could use more staffing, but we have to make do with what we have, and our operations are not as efficient.”

Though the department’s situation is uncertain for next year — much will depend on the number of people who choose to retire — the department has alleviated some safety concerns by avoiding layoffs, Parsons said.

“At this point in time, I can’t say there’s been a significant change in the way we do business, though it can be challenging at times,” Parsons said. “We didn’t do terribly; we did okay; I wish we did better.”

Original Author: Sarah Cutler