These are turbulent times for the Cincinnati Fire Department (CFD). With the city of Cincinnati massively over budget, officials are eyeing cuts to the department's funding just as spiraling overtime costs have led to temporary closures of some fire stations and the department is facing a constant deluge of critics, including local firefighters union leaders.
It's also become clear that, without major changes in either funding or its mission, the department's future looks even more grim.
"Right now, the mayor and City Council are looking at a $50 million hole in next year's budget, and that's going to mean some changes for the department," says CFD Chief Robert Wright (pictured), who is due to retire in January. "The 2011 budget, that's a problem for next year. We've had to do some things just to make sure we can make it to the end of this year. That's the problem we face now."
With an operating budget of just over $68 million, the department cut $5.4 million in expenses in 2010. In order to prevent layoffs, Wright says, the department had to make a series of concessions to keep its current staffing levels, including a cut to funding of overtime costs, which totaled more than $2.5 million in 2009.
Also, the city dipped into "one-time resources" to help prevent major cuts for both the fire and police departments, while the firefighters union deferred some payments due its members under its contract with the city to stave off even more cuts.
Still, the effort wasn't enough to prevent fire station “brownouts,” daily mothballing of certain trucks and pieces of equipment at some fire stations that are understaffed or where those firefighters could fill staffing shortfalls throughout the rest of the city. Because the department is 20 firefighters under its full complement, the number of firefighters needed to staff every station, overtime has been CFD's main problem, Wright says.
"It's come to the point where you either have to hire people, pay the overtime or reduce services," the chief says. "And the money isn't there."
That's left only one option: reducing services. Through the first 220 days of the year, Wright says, the department has had to brownout at least one station for all but 53 days; for 12 days the department had four companies down, the maximum allowed by department rules.
Then, in July, the department announced an extended plan that would temporarily close four companies — Ladder 18 at Lunken Field, Ladder 29 in the West End, Ladder 19 in Corryville and Ladder 21 in Fairmount — through the end of the year to fill in the staffing shortfalls elsewhere.
The closures have drawn criticism, especially from the firefighters union, which has called the move "playing Russian roulette" with the safety of Cincinnati residents.
Wright, though, says the department has no choice.
"We have to live with the budget the city gives us," he says. "We can't continue to fill every opportunity with overtime. If we had done that this year, we would have been out of money already. We'd have even more brownouts, and it would be an escalating problem."
The options will narrow further in 2011 with more budget cuts and the expected loss of another 35 firefighters to retirement.
Because of the city's money problems, a new recruit class has already been delayed and the overtime problem will become even bigger.
Union leaders didn't return calls seeking comment.
Meanwhile, critics say the department hasn't looked at all its options, re-examining its mission, efficient use of department resources and — an option that would be particularly unpalatable to the union — its staffing levels.
Former City Councilman Greg Harris has been one of those voices. He says the department is long overdue for such introspection.
"The firefighting infrastructure in Cincinnati was built, literally, in a different era," Harris says. "It's always been neighborhood firehouse-based since the 1800s. There are so many ways to serve the public more efficiently, doing it for less money. We 'spend stupid.' Last year, police and fire services accounted for two-thirds of the city's budget. We don't look at how the money's being spent, and we keep throwing money at a broken system."
Among the options the city needs to look at, he says, is the department's dispatching policies and the number of fire stations and staff needed to adequately protect the city. In 2009, Harris notes, almost 90 percent of 911 calls fielded by CFD were medical emergencies. Yet, because of the department's policy, fire engines were dispatched along with EMT units to all calls.
"The data tells us that we need far more ambulances and paramedics," Harris says. "You don't want a fire engine to be the first responder for medical calls, you want an ambulance with trained paramedics. You would think that, with that information in hand, the department would reconstitute their mission, but what's happened is it has increased their mission to include medical calls."
The department's motivation for doing so was to justify the its staffing levels, Harris says.
"It was a way they could justify keeping the same number of firefighters, even though the National Association of Fire Safety stats say the number of fires has dropped by 45 percent over the past 40 years," he says. “They don't need to handle medical calls. They don't need the same number of firefighters, according to the statistics."
When comparing CFD to other metropolitan departments, Harris might have a point.
In Cleveland, for example, where the city is trying to close a $23 million budget gap this year, its department has started "triaging" 911 calls, not dispatching fire personnel to medical calls. The move, suggested by a 2009 efficiency study, is expected to save millions. In Columbus and Louisville, too, they triage 911 calls, sorting out medical emergencies to keep its fire personnel out of the mix.
As a result, all three have adjusted their fire/EMS staffing to meet requirements.
CFD fielded the same suggestion — boosting its EMS presence, while paring its fire staffing — from a $185,000 study completed in 2005 by Virginia-based efficiency auditor Tri-Data. It was one of 221 changes the consultant suggested, which included closing firehouses and moving others to cover more areas. The report was largely ignored by the city.
"Some of their suggestions didn't make sense for our city," Wright says. "They weren't received favorably after we looked at them. Council looked at a similar program in Dallas, looking at how many calls were diverted from the system and how much money the city saved and decided that it wouldn't be much of a cost-cutting effort for us to undertake."
Another Tri-Data recommendation suggested creating shared response agreements with surrounding cities, which would reduce the number of fire stations and firefighters needed. It, too, was not deemed cost-effective.
Yet in Columbus, where the department covers almost one-third more ground with just six more fire houses, it's proved a success.
According to Columbus Fire Department Battalion Chief David Whiting, the city has had a agreements in place with surrounding cities since 1971.
"It's saved us a lot of money over the years," Whiting says. "Cities nowadays are not just one big metropolis, they're composed of lots of little suburbs and townships. We have agreements with all those cities that the closest company responds to calls. If we didn't have those agreements, the department would need another 10 houses to cover the same areas."
In Cincinnati, the same could be accomplished, Harris says.
"Instead of having a firehouse in Mount Washington, we could have an agreement with Anderson (Township) and its fire department, for example," he says. "We simply do not need all 26 of the firehouses the department now has."
Bill Kramer, a former CFD assistant chief and professor emeritus of fire services at the University of Cincinnati, disagrees. For years, Kramer has advised cities on getting the most of their fire departments, having recently wrapped up reports for Hopkinsville, Ky., and Lima, Ohio.
"I used to go into cities and tell them how to best increase their staffing," he says. "Now it's all about where to cut stations and restructuring to do more with less. I think the Cincinnati department is doing a fantastic job on the street level, but it probably does have to look at how it's using its resources."
Kramer says his preference is always to keep firehouses open to keep response times low, but other changes can be made.
"There are efficient ways of getting the job done with fewer people, and that's probably what they have to look at," Kramer says. "There are ways to prioritize, like variable staffing, which means putting more people on duty during high-demand times, or increasing their EMS ability.
"At any given time in Cincinnati, they may have four to five medical runs taking place, meaning those four to five fire engines are out of service, and those resources aren't being used as efficiently as they could be."