SAGINAW, MI He’s just 24 years old, but Saginaw firefighter Brandon Hausbeck already has earned the respect of his department. In 2014, he was given the department’s “Firefighter of the Year” award.
Less than a year later, though, Hausbeck’s job could become a casualty of budget cuts if the department cannot secure another federal grant to cover operating costs. Hausbeck is among 13 firefighters who could be laid off sometime between June and September.
Hausbeck, now 25, grew up and Saginaw and said he knew from a very young age he wanted to fight fires as a career.
“When I was a little kid I just wanted to be a firefighter, and I kind of never grew out of it,” he said. “I just never saw myself doing anything else.”
The Heritage High School graduate said he has not been disappointed by his dream job and, in particular, loves serving in the community where he grew up.
“I love it,” Hausbeck said. “It’s everything I hoped it would be. I wanted to help people and I get to do that on a daily basis, pretty much.”
His work has been recognized by that community, with the 2014 “Firefighter of the Year” award and after he and Lt. Christopher McGowan sprang into action to help save the life of a fellow firefighter who collapsed while driving the fire engine they were in on Jan. 8.
Despite that recognition, Hausbeck is one of 13 firefighters to receive notice that they could be laid off as early as June 30.
The layoffs are triggered by the proposed budget for the upcoming city fiscal year, which begins on July 1. The budget does not count on a $2 million federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant that, if received, would fund the 13 positions for another two years.
A $2.3 million SAFER grant has funded 15 firefighters in Saginaw since July 2013, but that grant expires on June 30.
Hausbeck said he and fellow firefighter Aileen Pettinger wrote that initial grant application. The department received the SAFER grant in 2013 less than two weeks before layoffs were scheduled to take place.
“That was very rewarding,” Hausbeck said. “Being able to save not only yourself, but all your co-workers, too.”
He and Pettinger were also part of a committee that wrote the new grant application. Grant announcements are expected anytime between June and September.
“We knew when the SAFER grant expired there was going to be some funding problems,” Hausbeck said. “We’ve saved a lot of money the past few years. Our hope was that money would go toward positions.”
The proposed city budget, set for approval by City Council on May 18, increases the allocation to the fire department from the public safety millage fund, but decreases general fund support for the department at a greater rate.
Hausbeck, who also serves as vice-president of the Saginaw firefighters union, pointed to savings the department has realized over the last two years by, among other things, cutting overtime expenses.
“The city has committed two positions to some of the savings,” he said. “Our position is it should be more. We kind of thought through the savings, we could probably limit the layoffs.”
With a 13-firefighter reduction, Fire Chief Christopher Van Loo said Saginaw would need to close two of its four stations, which is expected to result in significantly longer response times for certain areas of the city.
“We already have limitations on what we can do because of personnel,” Hausbeck said. “As we lose more, it just starts to get magnified.”
The union contract mandates that the layoffs be issued to those with the least seniority.
Van Loo said that means the layoffs would increase the average firefighter’s age to 45. The chief predicted the average workload of 193 structure fires per year would take its toll on an older firefighting force in the form of injuries.
“The Saginaw Fire Department is a very busy fire department,” Van Loo said. “Firefighting is a physically-demanding, labor-intensive occupation.
Hausbeck said he feels fortunate that he has not been impacted by any budget cuts in the nearly six years he has worked at the department.
“There were 67 personnel when I hired on,” he said. “And there are 38 in the budget. That’s almost a 50 percent reduction in five and half years.”
A string of firefighter retirements during that time allowed the department to downsize without triggering layoffs, Hausbeck said.
“The fact that I’m not already laid off is pretty much a miracle,” he said.
Despite the risk of being laid off, Hausbeck said he is not looking for another firefighting job. If layoffs are enacted, he would be the second name on the recall list.
“I’d probably just try to ride it out,” Hausbeck said. “I know that some of our guys have been looking around for other jobs.
“I’m committed to Saginaw. I want to work here.”
Hausbeck said the smaller firefighting force will pose many problems, but said that will not stop him from coming back to work in Saginaw if he is able.
“I don’t see it as sustainable,” he said. “I think there are going to be a lot of issues. I just hope the issues aren’t deaths.”
Hausbeck said he is hopeful that the union and city administration can still come to an agreement by which, even if the grant is not received, enough firefighters can be retained to keep at least three stations open.
“I’m not happy with the current proposal,” he said. “The city really hasn’t proposed any option other than the layoffs and the station closure.”
City Attorney Andre Borrello, who was recently the victim of a house fire, addressed City Council on April 20 to recognize the “valiant and brave heroism” displayed by Saginaw’s city firefighters.
“To me, it was not a battalion of nameless public servants – they were the friends and family that come to aid in a time of imminent danger and peril,” Borrello said.
Hausbeck said Borrello’s comments reflect how he feels about working for his hometown fire department.
“I’ve lived here my whole life,” he said. “I want to see Saginaw succeed. Ultimately if the city succeeds, so does the fire department.”
Hausbeck acknowledged that there are challenges that come with the job, not the least of which is a lack of job security due to city budget constraints.
But he said that will not stop him from pursuing the job he has wanted to do since he was a kid.
“The ability to be able to help people every day just trumps everything,” Hausbeck said.