CINCINNATI - City leaders announced a plan to virtually end fire department brownouts and boost staffing on Sunday.
The measures would permanently end rotating brownouts at Cincinnati’s 26 fire stations, Fire Chief Richard Braun told WCPO. By continuing to spend overtime, the addition of a newly graduated recruit class and another recruit class tentatively scheduled to graduate by fall, the city and the fire department hope to terminate brownouts and overtime spending by year’s end.
Thanks to nearly $2.5 million in overtime, brownouts are limited to up to five pieces of equipment every day, Braun said. The city will continue spending overtime, and coupled with the addition of new recruits hitting the street, brownouts will be reduced to virtually zero.
City Council must approve continued overtime spending for the budget that begins July 1.
Mayor John Cranley, Councilmember Christopher Smitherman, chair of City Council's the law and public safety committee, and Councilmember Kevin Flynn, joined reporters for a conference call outlining the details of plan.
"We all ran for election on a platform of ending brownouts," Cranley told reporters. "Brownouts aren't just a political game, these are life and death matters."
Braun said the four district fire chiefs review which of the city’s 40 pieces of equipment should be sidelined on a daily basis. Up to five pieces of equipment are “browned out” every day, he said. Four firefighters are assigned to each piece of equipment.
“We’ve determined we cannot go below five brownouts; our staffing is so low that at some times we would have had to brown out 10 to 12 companies,” Braun said. “Almost one-fourth of our complement would be gone.”
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends five to six firefighters on a piece of equipment. Brownouts have been effect since 2009 to some degree.
Braun said the latest recruit class, which graduated on Friday, was the largest during his time as chief. The 41 recruits bolster an aging fire department staff. Some 65 percent of the staff is more than 44 years old, Braun said. The average age for an Ohio firefighter is 44, he said.
“This class would drastically reduce the overtime needed to keep it (the brownouts) at five,” Braun said.
Since the most recent recruit class would reduce overtime to virtually zero, Braun said, the city is now allowing the department to continue spending overtime to eliminate the existing five brownouts per day.
Cranley told reporters the overtime spending is budget neutral and will not add more spending.
“This won’t get us to zero, but it could get us to two, one or a lot of days zero,” Braun said.
Ultimately, by year’s end, the city and the fire department hope to end the use of overtime with the graduation of a 50-member recruit class, pending the awarding of a federal Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response or SAFER grant, Braun said. This year’s academy was “fully reimbursed by the FY 2012 Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) Grant,” according to the city’s FY 2014/2015 approved biennial budget.
Braun could not offer a specific cost for academy classes, but said that many of the trainers are already employees of the fire department and much, if not all the cost for an academy, is built into the budget.
The department’s budget is a little less than $96 million, according to the city’s FY 2014/2015 approved biennial budget.
A decision on the grant is expected within the next two weeks, said Jennifer Speiser, Cincinnati fire spokeswoman and grant coordinator. If granted, the department plans to start the 50-member recruit class by Spring, likely in May, Braun said.
“By the end of October, early November, they should be out on the streets,” Braun said. “That should cut the overtime and brownouts almost entirely.”
It requires 198 firefighters per day to staff all 40 pieces of equipment at the department’s disposal, Braun said. With brownouts, staffing is currently at 178 per day. The latest crop of fire academy recruits will add 14 firefighters per shift, reducing the number of brownouts per day to close to zero, Cranley told reporters.
The district fire chiefs only brown out pieces of equipment located at 13 “double-housed” fire stations throughout the city, meaning they house an engine and ladder company, Braun said.
In December, Braun testified to the law and public safety committee the fire department’s response times “don’t even come close” to national standards, largely because of browning out of five of its 40 companies or 20 firefighters per shift. The NFPA recommends a four-minute response time after the dispatch center receives a call. Braun testified fire department response times have increased by three minutes more than the national standard.
“The department no longer meets the minimum response time as required by the National Fire Protection Agency,” Braun wrote in his report to the city.
The department has 26 engine companies, meaning trucks that can pump water, 12 ladder trucks
and two heavy rescue units, which are specialized companies that conduct automobile extrication, trucks totaling 40.
With the latest recruit class, staffing sits at 828, 13 less than the department’s authorized strength.
“We need to increase our authorized strength number because that’s an old number,” Braun said. “We should be around 879.”
In 2007, the fire department’s authorized strength was increased to its current level of 841.
View Fire Chief Richard Braun's report below:
WCPO government and politics reporter Kevin Osborne contributed to this report.