Chief’s public opinions on fire station staffing contradicted in private

DENTON, TX &#8211 Denton Firefighters Association members had what amounted to a captive audience Tuesday night at a candidate’s forum, and they used the opportunity to inform City Council and mayoral candidates about standards of staffing recommended by the Federal Fire Protection Association that are not supported by their own chief.

Battalion Chief Ken Gold used a Power Point presentation to show the eight candidates for two at-large positions and mayor some statistics. They came from a national study that supports a recommendation that fire engines use crews of four for the safety of the firefighters, people inside homes that are on fire and the property itself.

Interspersed with the statistics were quotes from e-mailed messages Fire Chief Ross Chadwick sent to city administrators that contradicted the national data and indicated that he was working against the idea of strengthening the crews to meet the national standard. The association obtained the e-mails using a public open records request.

“Do we have to send out the presentation to council next Friday or can I just spring it on them [and the Association] on the 7th as a handout to the council at the work session? I like the surprise element so the association can’t develop a response,” Chadwick wrote in an Aug. 25, 2010, message to Assistant City Manager Fred Greene regarding his budget presentation to the City Council.

In 2010 the economic downturn had Denton administrators scrambling for budget cuts. One of the measures in Chadwick’s presentation was to cut out the overtime that strengthened staffing in some of the engines, particularly Stations 6 and 7 on the south side of the city that must wait the longest for other engines to arrive. Those engines ran with four-firefighter crews.

The city adopted 33 percent cuts in overtime that included the fire department. Now a “Quint,” a combination ladder truck and engine, is the only unit with four firefighters.

Non-incumbent candidates said they were concerned and troubled at the statistics and the chief’s apparent disregard for them. Incumbents were stoic in their answers to questions about their openness to discussions with the association in “Meet and Confer” sessions. “Meet and Confer” gives the association bargaining power akin to labor contracts.

At the end, association members endorsed no candidate. They said the incumbents did not support them last year and the hopefuls did not rise to the level of endorsement.

Chadwick could not be reached for comment Thursday or Friday for this story. He is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and served on the committee that recommended four-firefighter crews as a standard for minimum staffing. He voted for NFPA 1710, which was the recommendation. Yet his comments to the administrators differed from the statistics that affected the standard.

“There is no direct connection of staffing to firefighter safety,” he wrote in an Aug. 2, 2010, message to City Manager George Campbell. “The studies do not indicate that a four-person engine company is safer than a three-person or a two-person engine company.”

This directly opposes the statistics from a 1993 Austin Fire Department study that showed the injury rate for three-person crews was 46 percent higher than for four-person crews.

And in 1981, the Seattle Fire Department showed in a study that the injury rate was 54 percent higher, according to fire association information.

In April 2010, the National Institute of Standards and Technology released data showing that in residential fires, four-person crews completed the rescue and essential firefighting tasks 25 percent faster than three-person crews. Results of that study were released three months before Chadwick’s messages.

Officers of the association said Friday that they understand that the downturn has made money tight. The idea of four-firefighter crews has been a goal for the association since the early ’90s, and the association members realize that it will take years. But they want to start talks with city administrators soon.

“We were just trying to hold on to what we had,” said association President Jason Ballard. “We have not been allowed to discuss it in Meet and Confer. We want to do it through Meet and Confer. We want to make a plan.”

Federal law mandates that before two firefighters can enter a burning house to check for trapped victims, there must be at least two firefighters outside the house to keep watch for safety’s sake. So when a three-person crew arrives at a burning house, they are not allowed to enter until more personnel arrive. That could mean the difference between saving a victim and a fire fatality, the firefighters said.

“It’s a burden on the city. We realize that,” said Battalion Chief Ken Gold. “We would like to add one four-firefighter crew every four years so it would not be so great a cost. We want the chance to show them that the focus is not some union-sponsored idea to increase membership. It’s a safety issue and a way that we can do our jobs faster and better. We do not want to go around Meet and Confer. We want to use it in the way it was meant to be used.”

But messages from Chadwick to administrators seem to indicate that will be a battle.

He wrote in a May 21, 2010, message to Greene, “We never want to put anything in a contract about staffing.”

From The Denton Record-Chronicle.