Firefighter staffing debate heats up after mayday fire

The debate over staffing levels has made headlines since 2011, when an arbitrator eliminated a minimum manning clause, which required the city to staff at least 22 firefighters on any given shift


By Nicole Radzievich
The Morning Call 

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Last week's house fire, when three firefighters were injured after a mayday call, has ignited a debate between Mayor Robert Donchez's administration and its fire union on how stations are staffed.

David Saltzer, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 735, said additional personnel may not have changed what happened at the fire, but the mayday should be a wake-up call to city leaders about safe staffing levels.

"It's time for the city administration along with the fire administration to come to their senses and to stop the brownouts -- closing of engines and/or manpower -- in the city of Bethlehem before we start using the term funerals instead of maydays," Saltzer, who was not at the fire, said in a statement Saturday.

Fire Chief Robert Novatnack noted that there are certain risks associated with firefighting but believes there was enough manpower when the call came in at 9:40 a.m. Thursdayat 1613 Eighth St. The response included 25 on-duty firefighters, another 27 called in from home and backup by Allentown, which fielded calls for two other fires.

Novatnack said the injuries to the three firefighers occurred during "aggressive interior fighting" during "rapidly changing fire conditions."

Three firefighters became momentarily trapped by the heat and the smoke. The first firefighter jumped from a second-story window. The second came down a ladder firefighters had placed near a window, and a third exited on the stairs inside the home. The firefighter who jumped was treated and released from the hospital, according to the city's timeline of the fire.

"Incidents like this happen fast on the fire ground, and on this day our firefighters relied on their training and instincts to remove themselves from imminent danger," Novatnack said. "Two of the firefighters were back at work the same day, while the firefighter with the leg injury is still recuperating."

He said he would continue to investigate the incident and recommend any necessary changes.

According to the city, three fire engines, two ladder trucks and the officer in charge were dispatched within two minutes of residents calling for help. Within six minutes of the call, all 25 firefighters -- including 10 fire officers -- on duty were dispatched and at the scene before the mayday call came in.

The debate over firefighting staffing levels has made headlines since 2011, when an arbitrator eliminated a minimum manning clause, which required the city to staff at least 22 firefighters on any given shift. That reduced city overtime costs. The city subsequently turned the fire station on Dewberry Avenue into its new EMS facility and relocated the equipment and staff to another station.

The most recent contract, which covers 108 city employees, did not address minimum manning. It expires at the end of 2017.

More recently, the administration made a policy change that lowered the minimum of fire officers on duty from five to four. 

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(c)2016 The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)

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