— The recent furor over relatively small pay raises for Atlanta firefighters caught more attention than what could be a life-and-death issue at the Fire Department, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
City Hall was abuzz about Mayor Shirley Franklin´s decision to give most employees — including firefighters — 1-percent raises while handing police a 4-percent boost in next year´s budget. Meanwhile, few were talking about the absence of money for a big boost in firefighting manpower.
Atlanta routinely puts three firefighters on its engines and ladder trucks, rather than the four recommended by a national fire safety association. Some say that means the city´s first responders could lose precious minutes awaiting backup as a fire grows out of control and people inside succumb to smoke and flames. The mayor, the firefighters union, and fire Chief Dennis Rubin agree that the Department of Fire Services needs to grow.
Last year, Franklin said the city needed 196 more firefighters in order to put four on each engine. She funded 50 new positions in the current budget as a down payment on that broader hiring goal. But instead of another 50 next year, she is adding only eight.
"We know that we need more firefighters," Franklin said last week. It was Nov. 23, the day she vetoed the 4-percent across-the-board raises the City Council added to her $512.4 million budget proposal for 2005. She had called a news conference to explain that veto and another veto of a council appropriation for 100 new police officers.
When she was asked about Fire Department staffing, Franklin acknowledged her pledge last year to expand the department. "The firefighters told us that they were short and had been short for years and it was dangerous for firefighters to have three on the truck instead of four," Franklin said. The mayor, whose first term ends next year, said she still is committed to expanding the department "over the course of the next few years."
But Franklin also is committed to a balanced budget, and hiring more firefighters would result in an ongoing annual expense. The city budgeted $2.5 million for the 50 additional firefighter slots added this year, an average of about $50,000 per firefighter.
Although the Atlanta firefighters union has focused on pay this year, its president said the city also should worry about staffing. In a recent interview, David Rhodes, a battalion chief who is president of the Atlanta Professional Fire Fighters union, the local branch of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said having three firefighters per vehicle puts lives at risk.
When firefighters arrive at a blaze, they have numerous tasks to accomplish: hoses must be attached to a water source and stretched to the fire, the site must be scouted and an attack plan formulated, holes must be cut into the building to clear the smoke, a rescue team and a backup must be assembled, and a commander and an assistant must situate themselves to coordinate the assault.
Fewer firefighters per vehicle means that more vehicles must arrive from stations across the city before a full complement of 15 to 17 is assembled. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking, and Rhodes said that if the team isn´t ready to go within about 10 minutes of the call for help, the fire typically will grow out of control.
"The chances for survival of an Atlanta resident are less than if we had an adequate staff," Rhodes said. He said many Atlanta firefighters have been injured because of low staffing, but he said none had died because of it since February 1986. Fifteen years later, in May 2001, the National Fire Protection Association, an organization that develops building, fire, and electrical safety codes, adopted a recommendation that career fire departments put four firefighters on their engines and ladder trucks.
The recommendation was controversial, because it meant costly expansion of professional fire departments across the country. In June 2003, James Shannon, the president of the fire protection association, testified before Congress that only 60 percent of fire departments in communities of 250,000 to 1 million had four career firefighters per engine.
Franklin came into office in 2002, when firefighters were riding a wave of popularity after the terrorist attacks the year before. Rhodes said that after he explained the four-per-truck guideline, she committed to hiring more firefighters. The eight positions that Franklin wants to fund next year are for trainers. The Fire Department is authorized for 1,014 positions, and 52 of them were vacant as of Nov. 9, according to the city´s Human Resources Department.
Franklin said the department must improve its recruiting and training capacity so it will be prepared to fill positions quickly, should they be authorized. Rhodes said that the department had fixed the hiring process this year and that he expected the bulk of the vacancies to be filled by early next year.
Chief Rubin said his department needs 1,184 employees and said there are plans for hiring from 2006 through 2008. But he said the department can expand only "when the budget can absorb the additional cost."