Fatal Covington fire drives calls for more firefighters

March 11 fatal fire behind citizen/union requests

COVINGTON, Ky. - New calls were heard Tuesday for the City of Covington to hire more firefighters.

They came from members of the Eastside Neighborhood Association and the Covington Firefighters Union Local #38 in the wake of last week's fire that claimed the life of Jean Herron.

Herron died when a fire of undetermined origin ravaged her Garrard Street home in the early morning hours of March 11.  Her visitation is Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Robbins Street Christian Church. A funeral service follows.

"We're asking for the City of Covington to be able to hire more fire department members in the Scott Street station," said Bennie Doggett, president of the Eastside Neighborhood Association.

Covington cut the number of firefighters on duty during a 24-hour period from 30 to 27 in September of 2011.  That meant browning out Pumper #1, which is housed at the central firehouse at the corner of Robbins and Scott Streets.

That's the firehouse closest to the Garrard Street scene with Ladder Truck #1, Heavy Rescue #1, Ambulance #1 and a Battalion Commander.

"At 30 we were bare bones minimum," said Covington Firefighters Union Local #38 President Chris Black. "Right now, we are at dangerous staffing levels."

However, Black wouldn't speculate what might have happened if Pumper #1 weren't browned out.

"I can't say for certain that Engine #1 being in service would have saved Miss Herron's life," he said. "What I can tell you is the first-in engine was one minute behind the first-in companies and the U.S. Fire Protection Administration has done studies that show fire doubles in size every minute."

Herron called 911 herself the morning of March 11 and uttered the words "help me" to a dispatcher before the line went dead.

Since no fire was initially reported, Covington police were notified to respond. Officers reportedly saw heavy smoke billowing from the house as they approached.

"The initial call was that police officers were on scene unable to gain access to the structure due to the intense flames and smoke," said Covington Fire Chief Dan Mathew.

Firefighters were quickly summoned and Chief Mathew said the first crews dispatched from the Robbins and Scott Street station were on the scene in four minutes and six seconds.

"Truck One and Car Two reported initially that there was heavy fire coming from the front of the structure," Chief Mathew said. "The front of the structure was fully involved in fire."

Pumper #6 arrived 28 seconds later from its firehouse on on Holman Avenue in Peaselburg. Pumper #8 was on the scene after that, after making the two-mile trip from Church Street in Latonia.

"As far as what my crews did that morning, they responded professionally, did exactly what they were supposed to do and unfortunately the outcome was a loss of life," the chief said.

Covington's five pumpers each carry a three person crew -- a lieutenant, firefighter and engineer -- and about 500 gallons of water. That's enough to last about four to five minutes while hoses are hooked to hydrants for a steadier supply.

Would having that sixth pumper in service make a difference for public safety?

Chief Mathew said that's not necessarily the case.

"You could have 100 firefighters on a day and you can't prove that it's any safer than having 27 on a day," he said. "The more equipment we have on the shorter our response times might be, but again there's no proof positive that more people equals safer or better conditions for the citizens."

Covington's fire department made 11,800 runs in 2012 with 9,600 of them -- 80 percent -- for emergency medical services. Fire calls only accounted for 20 percent of that total.

Consequently, Chief Mathew said that makes EMS runs a statistical priority.

"We have to respond to the emergencies at hand," he said. "It's kind of a first come, first serve business."

Black claims the city violated the working agreement with firefighters when staffing was cut and a unfair labor practice was filed with the Kentucky Labor Cabinet.

However, Covington City Solicitor Frank Warnock said the case was decided in favor of the city. He added a last, best and final offer on staffing was made to the union, but it was turned down.

The union sought a temporary injunction in Kenton Circuit to force the city to keep daily staffing at 27, but that wasn't granted.

Warnock said negotiations continue with the union's executive board.

"It's the city's obligation now to make a decision if they want to put our staffing at a level where it should be and make all these legal issues go away," Black said. "Or, the could continue the legal action further and continue to risk lives of the citizens."

Doggett and other members of the Eastside Neighborhood Association have already packed one meeting of the Covington City Commission to have their viewpoints heard.

They were told the city does not have the money to hire more firefighters. So, they plan to do the same thing for the 6 p.m. meeting on Tuesday, March 26.

"We're asking now that we want that to happen from a neighborhood perspective because we lost someone that was really dear to us," said Doggett.

City Manager Larry Klein says adding more firefighters to the department isn't feasibly possible right now.

"We do believe we are on a five year sustainable financial plan right now and that plan has enabled the city to reach financial stability along with other changes in the past year," said Klein. "To add that expense now, we would have to find that money somewhere else or cut something else."

Chief Mathew said he was sympathetic to Doggett's effort.

"Unfortunately, we can't schedule our fires. We can't schedule our EMS runs," he said. "They just happen when they happen and we have to deal with them as best we can."

9 On Your Side reporter Amy Wadas contributed to this story.

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