Fire chief hopes 'brownouts' will end as fire union blasts firefighter response times

CINCINNATI -- The national standard for the amount of time it takes for firefighters to respond to a fire is "five minutes and 40 seconds," according to Cincinnati Fire Chief Richard Braun.

But Monday, it took Fire Engine 12 twice that time to respond to a house fire in College Hill .

Braun says the delay was caused by a “brownout” – which happens when the city takes an engine or ladder company out of service temporarily to re-distribute the staff for either training or to fill in personnel gaps in other companies. It also saves the city money.

Matt Alter, president of the Cincinnati Firefighters Union, says city officials are gambling the lives of residents as they continue to "brownout" fire companies.

Braun responded Tuesday to criticism from Alter and other members of the union for the 11 minutes it took firefighters to arrive at the College Hill fire on Budmar Avenue Monday.

Alter said brownouts kept firefighters from getting there sooner.

“Every day that goes by, we gamble,” Alter said. "We never know where the next fire is going to be. We brownout five companies a day -- 12.5 percent of your companies are browned out everyday."

In Cincinnati, the fire department restricts five of its 40 companies -- or 20 firefighters a shift. Each company has a four-person staffing minimum. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) recommends five to six people on a piece of equipment.

Brownouts have affected Cincinnati firefighters for more than four years, starting in August 2009. But Braun said he agrees with Alter and hopes to have zero projected brownouts this time next year.

"There is no good thing about brownouts,” Braun said. “The best you can say about them is it's a short term fix for saving some money.”

Braun said Cincinnati's average response time is about one to two minutes slower than the NFPA’s national average.

The authorized strength of the Cincinnati Fire Department is 841, but Braun said there are currently only 780 employees -- or 61 below authorized strength.

A recruiting class of 40 firefighters graduates in February, which Braun hopes will help the shortage.

The average age of an Ohio firefighter is 41. Braun says 70 percent of the Cincinnati Fire Department is between 41 and 61 years old.

Braun said he will continue working with the city to keep a recruiting class going every year – so he can fill a fire department that has many workers set to retire and make sure crews aren’t late to save lives.

"How long until your luck runs out?” Braun said. “You don't want to sit there and say, 'Well, is this going to be the time?'"

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