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Chief says lives at risk

March 08, 2006|by DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ

HAGERSTOWN

Hagerstown Fire Chief Gary Hawbaker said Tuesday that it is becoming more and more difficult for firefighters to ensure their own safety and the safety of those they are committed to protecting.

He asked the city council to address the fire department's critical manpower shortage, asking for 18 new firefighters and a training and safety officer - requests that could cost the city an additional $946,798 annually.

"It has to do (with) community service and safety for our firefighters," Hawbaker said. "These requests have been needed for at least 10 years, and I don't need to tell you this."

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Councilman Lewis C. Metzner agreed that the city no longer can put off the issue and he is willing to draw criticism from residents about the extra cost rather than face public scrutiny if someone dies or a building burns down.

"I'd much rather take the heat from the public myself about a tax increase," Metzner said, acknowledging uniformed firefighters at the work session. "I just want to make sure that, no matter what we do, the folks in this room have no (question) about whether they're getting 19 firefighters."

Hawbaker said he would like to see the city authorize all 19 positions for the next budget year, but he developed two alternate options to phase in the positions over the next three budget years. He said the city would need to increase property taxes by about 3 1/2 cents to hire all 19 workers next year. If the council does not want to do that, he said his department could do with 10 additional firefighters next year and another nine in fiscal 2007-08.

He presented a third option under which the city would authorize seven more firefighters next year, another six the following year and six in fiscal year 2008-09. He stressed that if the city opts to defer hiring some of those workers he wants a firm commitment that it will follow through in subsequent years.

With the council's support, City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said he will factor the cost of Hawbaker's first two options into a draft copy of the budget by the end of the month.

Hawbaker said there are several reasons why the issue has become critical, and most of them have been building in intensity since 1985. Among them is a 22.8 percent increase in the number of square miles the department has to cover, and a 60 percent increase in the number of emergency calls to which the department responds. He said the department's manpower has fallen in that time from 132 to 77, its number of career firefighters has only grown from 48 to 51, and the number of volunteer firefighters has dropped from about 75 to 14.

As a result, the department is falling short of meeting National Fire Protection Association standards, he said. The NFPA recommends at least 16 firefighters are needed to handle an average residential fire. At its present staffing levels, the department is able to respond with only seven initially.

It can call upon five more by activating available units across the city, bringing that total to 12 without needing to turn to fire departments outside the city for assistance.

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