Danville fire cuts may carry other costs

Danville fire cuts may carry other costs

DANVILLE — Just three years ago, the city cut more than 20 positions — nine of those were firefighters.

Now, city officials find themselves in a similar situation, with increasing expenses outpacing any growth in revenue and a projected shortfall of more than half a million dollars in next year's budget, which means another round of personnel cuts.

"No question," Danville Mayor Scott Eisenhauer said of whether there will be positions cut in the next few months.

The question is what positions.

"All divisions and departments within the city will be analyzed to determine where cuts can occur," said Eisenhauer, who added that $500,000 in personnel cuts is anticipated, but he's not making any comments at this time about what should or shouldn't be cut. "I think we need to analyze how we provide every service and determine where cuts could be made to where we reduce services but don't eliminate services altogether."

In a city council study session this fall, aldermen discussed cuts to the fire department and whether closing a fire station, specifically Station 4 on East Main Street, would be a cost-saving move.

It's a story being played out in cities across the state, including Champaign, as cities look for ways to cut costs and maintain service levels, especially in the area of public safety. For more than a year, Champaign officials considered cuts in the city's fire department, specifically shutting down an engine company at Station Four, 2315 W. John St. Early this year, that move was averted when the city and Champaign Firefighters Local 1260 reached a side agreement. The union made financial concessions, agreeing to furlough time and wage concessions to keep the station's engine company fully functioning for the next 18 months.

And it's not the first time the Danville City Council has discussed and studied closing a fire station. After the council's study session this fall, Eisenhauer provided aldermen with a chart comparing Danville's police and fire staffing levels and number of stations with other Illinois cities with comparable populations.

According to that comparison, which was compiled by Danville city officials, six of the 24 cities had all-volunteer fire departments. The remaining 18 had either all full-time firefighters or a combination of full-time and part-time firefighters.

Of those 18, some have more firefighters than Danville, others fewer. But the average number of full-time firefighters among the 18 cities is 42, not including the part-time firefighters in the average. Danville has 52 full-time firefighters, including the command officers and the training lieutenant.

The Danville Fire Division absorbed the biggest proportion of personnel cuts three years ago, dropping its overall count from 61 to 52. It also dropped the division's minimum staffing — the minimum number of firefighters allowed per shift — to 13.

Danville firefighter Sean O'Kane, president of the local firefighters' union, said 85 percent of the time the division is operating below 15 per shift, and it's common to be at the minimum of 13, which means there are only three firefighters at each of the four stations, except the main station on Griffin Street, which would have four at a minimum. When he first became a firefighter, he said, most of the time it was 20 per shift and minimum staffing was 16. Some of the other Illinois cities in the poll, he said, are adjacent to other cities, and have neighboring full-time departments to call on for back-up. Danville does not have that luxury.

And, he said, the city has four stations for a reason.

Currently, firefighters can respond in four minutes to almost every section of the city from one of the four stations, except for a few pockets on the edges of the city, like the southern end of the industrial area on Lynch Road.

"The whole purpose of having response times under four minutes is because it saves lives," said O'Kane, adding that a fire will double in size every minute.

Any time closing a fire station comes up, he said, it's Station 4 on East Main Street that's targeted. It's within blocks of Danville Area Community College and the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care System, and O'Kane said it's actually the busiest station based on the volume of calls.

But it's closer to the main station than any of the others are to each other. Alderman Tom Stone said on a map, it appears as if they're almost on top of each other. During the council study session, Stone said, maybe the city could consider closing that station and moving its firefighters to the other stations.

But O'Kane said if that station were closed, the main station on North Griffin Street would have to cross two busy sets of railroad tracks on Griffin to get to the southeast section of the city, and Station 1 in downtown would also have to cross a busy railroad to get there. And the fourth station on the opposite end of the city is even farther away and would have to cross the same tracks.

O'Kane said he's been on calls where two engines make it to a call and two others are stuck for 10 to 12 minutes by a train. The East Main Street station also handles calls on Interstate 74, and O'Kane said response times to accidents there would definitely be affected if it were eliminated.

"So when we talk about response times, we are talking about our members' safety and the safety of the public. We are tasked with the duty of saving people, but we must follow certain guidelines, too," said O'Kane, referring to requirements that two firefighters must be outside a fire before two can go inside a burning structure. The department recently received grant funding to do Rapid Intervention Team training, learning how to rescue a firefighter who's down. O'Kane said they quickly realized that if a firefighter does go down, the department doesn't have enough people to save the firefighter and continue fighting the fire.

And, he said, Danville has its share of structure fires. In the last two months, he said, the department has had nine, including one where the department did a ladder rescue to save people in an apartment building on Garden Drive.

"If we don't have enough people, we can't perform all those functions, and it will affect peoples' lives," said O'Kane, who has heard the suggestion that cuts won't occur in the police division. "What the police have in crime, we have in fires. We're just as important to public safety as the police."

O'Kane said he realizes that the cost of fire pensions is increasing, and the membership has made suggestions to the city for raising additional revenue by billing insurance companies for certain calls, although not building fires. But the city hasn't implemented those suggestions.

Police and fire pension costs have more than doubled in the last 10 years.

Next year alone, fire pension costs are increasing $37,828, according to city officials, and police pension costs are increasing by $97,421. Pension costs for all other city employees through the Illinois Municipal Retirement Fund are increasing by $44,027 next year.

But salaries citywide, which include the fire and police divisions, are also increasing next year by $319,415.

In addition to that, the salaries and benefits of three police officers are increasing overall city expenses by $236,958 next year. The three officers were hired three years ago under a federal stimulus grant, which paid for their first three years, and the city picks up the tab in the fourth year. Eisenhauer said after the fourth year, in 2014, the city has the choice to keep or cut those officers.

But the largest increase in city expenses next year will be employee health insurance, which is increasing by $347,901.

Altogether, the city anticipates a $2 million increase in expenses next year compared with this year but expects an increase in revenues of a little more than $1.37 million, for a shortfall of $642,000. With 75 percent to 80 percent of the city's budget being personnel, Eisenhauer said, that's why the goal is to make more than $500,000 in personnel cuts.

How Danville's fire department stacks up

 

CityPopulationFull-time firefightersPart-time firefightersResidents per firefighterFire stationsAlton 27,8654805802Batavia 26,04519361,3702Carpentersville 37,69139309663Danville 33,0275306234East St. Louis 27,0065804654Freeport 25,6384405823Galesburg 32,1954107853Gurnee 31,2954706652Hanover Park 37,97325171,5182Highland Park 29,7635105833Mundelein 31,06425181,2422Niles 29,8034706342Park Ridge 37,4803701,0122Pekin 34,0945506193Quincy 40,6336406345Romeoville 39,68020481,9843St. Charles 32,9744607163Streamwood 39,8584708482Wilmette 27,0874506012

 

Average full-time resident/firefighter ratio = 648 residents/1 firefighter.

Average number of full-time firefighters = 42.

Source: City of Danville

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Paddy wrote on December 10, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Danville and Champaign have great resources available that can cut costs without reducing effectiveness - college students. In many fire departments across the country, career as well as volunteer, college students serve as firefighter/EMT's for free lodging. Where local colleges offer fire science degrees, they often administer the entire program.

My post titled "Sustainable Fire Protection" discusses the concept at www.fdexcellence.com, and the web site www.fdlivein.com lists fire departments using college student firefighters.

Danville could replace retiring firefighters with college student firefighters for much lower personnel costs. Since the student firefighters are temporary, they do not add to the pension burden.