Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Saturday, May 19, 2007

"Firefighters concerned about safety, response"

From Wednesday's Moscow-Pullman Daily News:
Personnel at Station 2 using ambulance, not fire engine as primary vehicle

Administrative changes within the Pullman Fire Department have union representatives concerned about delayed response times and firefighter safety.

Lt. Rudy Fisher, vice president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local No. 1892 and a 15-year veteran of the Pullman Fire Department, said the recent decision to have personnel at Station No. 2 - at the intersection of Terre View Drive and Stadium Way - use an ambulance as their primary vehicle is a source of frustration.

Until recently, Station 2 personnel drove a fire engine to most calls. The fire engine is useful in fire and medical situations as it has EMT gear on board.

"With the engine, we could cover both sides of the equation," he said, noting the only thing an engine can't do is transport a patient to the hospital. "(The new directive) really ties our hands for our daily activities. It's ridiculous. It just gutted our entire response time."

Operations Officer Mike Heston said the decision should not affect the desired response time of four minutes or less anywhere in Pullman.

"Well, it may be touchy to them (at Station 2), but not to me. When they come to work, they do what I tell them to do," he said. "Management dictates how you respond and what you respond in."

Fisher said Station 2 employees are constantly switching gear, such as fire turnouts, between the ambulance and engine. He said those added responsibilities put firefighters at risk of injury, especially within the tight quarters of the Station 2 garage and facing the pressure of maintaining an adequate response time. Fisher said the garage floor gets slippery in the winter months.

"Hopefully, nobody gets hurt, but that would be the final straw," he said. "It's a dangerous situation when guys are hustling needlessly."

Fisher said Station 2 was proposed as a self-sufficient station, manned with enough employees to handle both an ambulance and fire engine. At maximum staffing, six line firefighters - those who are first responders in emergencies - are present at Station No. 1, and three are at Station 2. Fifty percent of the time, four firefighters work at Station 1 and two work at Station 2.

Two people are needed to run both an engine and an ambulance.

"Don't give us the smoke and mirrors effect when we've got two guys jumping between vehicles," Fisher said.

Fisher said the Grand Avenue Station 1 staff is depleted when Station 2 constantly needs backup because of understaffing. Pullman also has mutual-aid agreements with Moscow, Palouse, Colfax and Rural Fire District 12, which can provide support if the PFD is short on manpower.

Capt. Eric Reiber, president of Local 1892, said the union is not yet officially involved in the issue.

The union can't do "a lot, other than education, unless we can nail it to a safety violation," Reiber said. "And right now, even though it isn't good for our people or the public, it isn't really a safety violation. It's just very frustrating."

Reiber says nine more employees are needed in the department - three more on each day's three shifts.

"Our biggest concern is public safety," Reiber said. "When we enter this position, our goal is to provide the best service we can to the public. And now, we don't feel that we're providing the best service we can. We're not going to be providing the best service, and that doesn't sit well with us. We're adamant that we have enough people to do the job and do it safely."

Heston agreed.

"Every year, our goal is to get more people," he said, adding that it costs the department $100,000 for every new employee hired when benefits, wages and training are considered. "It's a matter of economics. Who's going to give up what?"

Heston said the department will have to survive without more personnel, and he'll continue to push for more staff during the city's yearly budget cycle.

Response times are not suffering, he said.

"Not yet, but we're getting close," he said. "But we're set up to cover each other. That's why we're here."

Fisher said money is not the issue. He said the city isn't trying hard enough to fund more positions.

"It's nice to have goals," he said. "But they're not looking outside the box."

Heston said if development continues in the city - which would increase Pullman's revenue through sales taxes - the City Council likely would feel more comfortable about hiring additional personnel.

"They support us downtown (at City Hall). It's just a matter of where the money is coming from," he said. "Some guys are going to want to see (more personnel) overnight, but these things take time."
This sounds like a typical labor-management dispute. I think given the fact that the city has been having to dip into emergency reserves every year to balance the budget, I don't think the city council is being unsupportive of the fire department. I'm sure they would love to add more firefighters, but it's just like everything else. When Pullman residents send half of their sales tax money over the border into Moscow, what else can we expect?

A Wal-Mart Supercenter will provide enough tax reevenue to add those 9 firefighters at $100,000 apiece.

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