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Chief warns against cutting firefighters



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The Berlin Fire Department is already fighting fires with fewer firefighters than recommended. The current proposed budget would reduce that number even further. (Photo by Erik Eisele) (click for larger version)
March 10, 2010
BERLIN — The proposed 2010-2011 budget features a number of cuts in an effort to keep the tax rate flat. One cut that might hit the city hard, however, is at the Berlin Fire Department.

The fire department requested $2,085,451 this year, over $300,000 more than last year, but the proposed budget gives them $1,784,993, $876 more than last year.

The essentially flat budget will mean the loss of two firefighters if it is adopted, something Chief Randall Trull said the city cannot afford.

"The safety of the citizens will be jeopardized," he said. "We need the resources to do the job."

The fire department currently has four shifts, with four firefighters on per shift, plus two additional firefighters. The two additional positions fill in the gaps, like when someone is sick, hurt or on vacation.

If the city eliminates those two positions, Chief Trull said, it will eliminate the buffer that ensures the trucks are fully staffed, and the next time someone takes a vacation or calls in sick it could lead a disaster. "We're going to have a real issue responding to fires," he said

That's because of standard firefighting techniques, as outlined by federal guidelines.

"The first five minutes of a working structure fire determines the outcome," he said, "how many people can get there on the initial alarm."

With a crew of four manning the initial response, the fire department is prepared to attack the fire. Two men can go into the building to fight the fire, and two men can stay outside to man the equipment.

But if three people respond to the initial alarm no one can do anything. Firefighters adhere to the buddy system when they go into buildings, Chief Trull said, and a firefighter can't go in without a partner. Then for every person inside the building there has to be one outside.

That makes four the magic number: two in, two out at any fire scene. With 16 firefighters there would be four firefighters per shift, but not if anyone got hurt or called in sick. And firefighting is a high-risk job, where it's not unusual to see injuries.

"My main goal is everybody in this department has to come home safely," he said. "We're not going in unless we've got the people there."

On call personnel and off-duty firefighters will respond, he said, but that takes time. It is the initial crew that determines whether a building is saved or destroyed, whether adjacent structures are damaged or preserved, and whether lives are lost or not, he said.

"I know it's not a perfect world," he said, but "we need to be ready."

In fact, as ready as the BFD is with four person crews, according to National Fire Protection Association standards, they should be doing more.

"In jurisdictions with tactical hazards, high hazard occupancies, high incident frequencies, geographical restrictions," NFPA standard 1710 states, "companies shall be staffed with a minimum of five or six on-duty personnel."

According to Chief Trull, Berlin fits all of these categories. It is densely populated, with old buildings, no neighboring full time departments and a history of arson. Berlin is just the type of community the standard is written for, he said.

The fire department responded to 42 working structure fires in 2009, including several major fires back-to-back.

"When you sleep here in the city of Berlin fire department, you don't sleep," he said.

In such a high risk environment, he said, the department should have five firefighters per shift plus two floaters.

"What I'm trying to do is cover us," he said, "to follow these standards."

The standards are not legally binding, as they have not been adopted at the federal, state or local level. But that doesn't mean the city couldn't feel the repercussions if it ignores them.

"In a court of law you can be liable," Chief Trull said.

Plus, he said, he is tasked with keeping the city and the firefighters safe. Too few firefighters means they don't get enough rest, with leads to fatigue, injuries and mistakes.

"Honestly," he said, "I think its unsafe to work with less people."

But if the city is going to keep the tax rate flat and achieve the council's other budget goals the cuts are going to have to stay.

Chief Trull said he doesn't have anything else to cut. "Look at my budget. There's absolutely no fluff in my budget, period."

Plus, he said, cutting the fire department budget now bodes ill for the future.

"We will have no choice but to do less service," he said.

That means may mean more buildings burn, but it also means fewer inspections to close dilapidated properties.

"The heavy-hitting tool to bring these places into compliance are in the fire department," the chief said.

Addressing building violations has been a key interest of almost every member of the city council.

Fewer personnel mean less of this type of work will get done, he said, hurting the city's long-term growth.

In addition, a poorly staffed fire department will push up home insurance rates, he said, something Berlin already struggles with as a result of its high incidence of fires.

"I don't want to get into a political match with council," he said. Everyone knows the budget is tight, he said, but the city can't afford to reduce its ability to fight fires, considering recent events. Berlin has the most fires for its size in the state, he said, and the department is already stretched trying to combat them all. To ensure the city's safety, he said, this budget has to be reexamined.

"They will really have to think about this, really hard," he said.

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