Ohio city FFs urge city administration to solve staffing shortage 'crisis'

After an unsatisfactory meeting, the Toledo fire union put up a message to the public on a billboard: "Your fire dept. is dangerously understaffed today"


Sarah Elms
The Blade, Toledo, Ohio

TOLEDO, Ohio — Forty-six Toledo firefighters were working on their day off Monday, yet the department still fell short of its mandated minimum staffing level of 113.

It's an issue the city's firefighters said they're now dealing with on a daily basis, and one that leaves fire engines and medic units parked at various fire stations throughout the city unstaffed and therefore unable to respond to emergencies.

"Imagine that you live in the neighborhood where that rig is out of service today and you have a serious medical emergency or there's a fire at your house. They'll send the next closest rig, but that one may be out on a run, too," said Matt Tabb, vice president of Local 92, the union that represents Toledo's firefighters. "The response is going to be delayed right now." (Photo/Toledo Fire & Rescue)

"Imagine that you live in the neighborhood where that rig is out of service today and you have a serious medical emergency or there's a fire at your house. They'll send the next closest rig, but that one may be out on a run, too," said Matt Tabb, vice president of Local 92, the union that represents Toledo's firefighters. "The response is going to be delayed right now."

The union is in the midst of contract negotiations with the Kapszukiewicz administration, and Local 92 President Dan Desmond said the two parties broached the topic of staffing on June 24. Mr. Desmond said he and others aren't satisfied with what he characterized as a "non-answer" from Toledo Fire & Rescue Department leadership regarding accelerating the hiring process for new recruits.

The next day, the union put up a message to the public on its large Erie Street billboard: "Your fire dept. is dangerously understaffed today."

There's a class of about 50 going through the necessary training now. About a dozen already have their emergency medical technician or paramedic credentials in place, so they'll be ready to hit the streets in August, but the majority won't be brought on staff until October.

Mr. Desmond said Chief Brian Byrd is looking to hire another class in April of 2022, a timeline union officials contend won't address the department's staffing shortages fast enough. The department has 481 firefighters, not including those out on leave or on training detail, and staffing should be at 575, he said.

"The American Rescue Plan specifically says that money can be used for hiring. There's no excuses here, and no sympathy. You have the money. You have the ability," Mr. Desmond said. "What you're doing is setting up the summer of 2021 where we're woefully understaffed, and you're setting up the summer of 2022 to be the same."

Department Spokesman Pvt. Sterling Rahe said the coronavirus pandemic impeded hiring because National Testing Network sites, which administer the entry exams and physical agility tests firefighter applicants must pass, were closed.

"The testing sites were closed for several months, which negated our goal of hiring a fire class of 50 in December of 2020. As the testing sites reopened, the city administration resumed the hiring process without delay," Private Rahe said in a written statement.

"In no way has the city of Toledo administration neglected its duty to hire sufficient number of firefighters," he continued. "We understand the negative effects that were created by the pandemic and we are truly empathetic. The city plans to hire a sufficient number of firefighters to relieve the current members and to reduce the potential of staffing issues."

Mr. Tabb said firefighters are working 36-hour shifts and coming into work on their days off, all after a year of increased stress while responding to emergency calls during the coronavirus pandemic. He called the current practice unsustainable and said it jeopardizes the safety of both the fire crews and the public.

"It's a crisis," Mr. Tabb said. "When we're not able to staff our department on a daily basis, the public needs to know that."

Local 92 leaders want to see the administration look to the list of firefighter hopefuls who have passed the civil service test needed to apply to the department. Their hope is that when the dozen firefighters from the current recruitment class move up to probationary status in August, a new group could begin training.

"We are currently exploring the feasibility of hiring an additional class off the current eligibility list but that has yet to be determined," Private Rahe said.

He noted there was only one firefighter class budgeted for 2021; there are two classes of 25 each budgeted for 2022.

The city budgeted $4.31 million for fire department overtime in 2021. A finance report from the end of the first quarter shows $1.42 million, or about 33 percent of the budget, was spent through March.

The coronavirus impacted more than just the fire department. Mayor Wade Kapszukiewicz placed 300 employees on temporary emergency leave in April, 2020 and soon after mandated 180 nonunion employees take five unpaid furlough days. He and Toledo City Council President Matt Cherry also announced a hiring freeze that delayed the start of a 40-member police class.

But a month later, city council made some funding adjustments to come up with $750,000 to ensure a police class, albeit smaller than 40, could proceed. The class of 22 graduated this month and brought Toledo's sworn police force from 583 to 605.

"The Toledo Police Department managed to get a class on the street this month," Mr. Desmond said. "If the pandemic was the reason the fire department couldn't do it, then why could TPD?"

Mr. Cherry, who chairs the Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Committee, did not return a request for comment Monday.

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(c)2021 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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