The Independence Fire Department will reorganize this upcoming fiscal year to provide three additional firefighters.

The Independence Fire Department will reorganize this upcoming fiscal year to provide three additional firefighters.

However, the Fire Department will continue to have a number of unfunded, vacant positions when the new fiscal year starts July 1, including four firefighter positions, one fire inspector and a deputy chief of administration, as well as the non-funding of recruit training salaries.

The department is reorganizing its operations division to provide funding, without increasing the general fund, through the reclassification of several positions.

Lower staffing levels were potentially dangerous to public safety during this fiscal year, Fire Chief Sandra Schiess recently told the City Council.

During fiscal year 2011-12, which ends June 30, the number of times the Fire Department was able to get the total number of firefighters needed on scene at a structure fire (usually 15 for a residential fire) in the recommended time declined significantly, from 65 percent of fire calls in the first quarter to 45 percent during the third quarter.

This is measured from the time of the dispatch to the arrival time of all units.

Pumper 2, based out of 39th Street and Phelps Road, was closed 202 times between July 1, 2011, and March 11, 2012. The three-person pumper at Station 8 also was replaced by a two-person rescue 200 days during that time frame. Because of these reduced staffing levels, Schiess said, the department was unable to get enough personnel in less than eight minutes for an additional 20 percent of the time.

“Getting to a structure fire less than 50 percent of the time with enough people to safely do rescue or fire fighting is not acceptable and must be kept to a minimum,” Schiess said. “The city manager and fire administration have both been working to improve this situation.”

Some good news does exist, however, Schiess said. Despite high call volumes and reduced on-duty staffing, department response times from the time of dispatch until the arrival of the first unit improved significantly in 2009, 2010 and 2011.

While the total responses from all Fire Department companies reduced slightly from 2009 to 2010 (21,845 versus 21,714), that number rose again in 2011 to 22,835 responses.

“Efforts to reduce demands on Fire Department services to only true emergencies for the last few years has only minimal effect,” Schiess said. “I have to agree with Police Chief (Tom Dailey) – we need to reduce the number of 911 calls that come in for service that are not true emergencies, and that should be a concerted educational effort to the community.”

This means the department has to continue meeting the demand for services with a reduced staffing level, Schiess said, something that required “creativity and dedication.”

“The results, however, varied significantly,” she said, “depending upon the type of incident.”

While the general fund portion of the Fire Department’s budget is projected to increase from $15,749,223 to $15,970,178, the total budget faces a decrease from $17,782,325 this fiscal year to $17,359,118 next fiscal year because of a reduction in grants and projected revenues from the fire safety sales tax.

The department’s overtime budget remains the same as 2011-12, and to remain within the budget, alternate staffing plans will be necessary some days, but the department intends to never reduce the daily staffing level below 36 people, Schiess said, which it was able to maintain this fiscal year, as well.

Kirk Stobart, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 781, asked the City Council at Monday’s budget public hearing to fund the budget to allow a minimum staff of 38 firefighters and 1 assistant chief with 39 personnel each day.

“Our mission is to provide the highest level of safety of life and property – this is our basic service to the citizens,” Stobart said. “Your goal as council members, we feel, should be to keep all 14 fire companies staffed (at) their minimal levels every single day this year so that we can provide this basic service.”

He said the underfunded overtime budget also is an issue, with the department needing between $200,000 to $600,000 to keep minimum staffing levels.

“Please give us the tools and the proper staffing to do our jobs by making the necessary changes to this year’s upcoming budget,” Stobart said, “and to properly staff the Independence Fire Department with a minimum of 39 firefighters.”