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Why the math doesn’t add up on inspector general’s proposed firefighter cuts

According to National Fire Protection Association standards, the fire department is already understaffed. Simple-minded, harmful policy suggestions are counterproductive.

Chicago firefighters battle a blaze in Belmont Cragin in January 2019.
Chicago firefighters battle a blaze in Belmont Cragin in January.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

It is not without irony that Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s recommendations to cut costs by cutting firefighters was reported on Sept. 11th, the anniversary of the horrific terrorist attack that killed thousands of Americans, including 343 Fire Department of New York firefighters.

Adding insult to injury, the life-saving manpower levels enshrined in the Chicago firefighter’s labor contract were characterized in a recent Sun-Times article as “outdated staffing requirements.”

Ferguson gives estimates of the millions to be saved by slashing the number of firefighters by 20%, displaying an extraordinary ignorance of the firefighting tactics and procedures required to adequately perform the life-saving services the citizens of Chicago expect and deserve.

He and the others named (and unnamed) in the article seem clueless and unconcerned as to why the staffing requirements are needed and enshrined in the contract. In fact, the number one reason for the firefighter’s strike almost 40 years ago was to secure a contract that would guarantee an adequate number of firefighters on the engines, ladder trucks and squads.

These numbers were not arbitrarily pulled out of the air, but were arrived at by the careful assessments of trained professionals in the fire service. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has recommended five on engine companies and six on ladder trucks. Other professional fire service organizations have made similar conclusions. A rational person should give much more credence to those conclusions rather than the arbitrary opinions of political hacks and “unnamed sources.”

After minimum-manning requirements were incorporated, the fire death toll began a steady decline that continues to this day. Serious injuries and deaths among firefighters were reduced. Do we want to see a reversal of that trend?

Why stop at 20% cuts? Why not 40%? Why not close a bunch of firehouses? Now we’re talking real savings!

From a financial standpoint, reducing the quality of your fire department is just plain dumb. One of the key factors used by the insurance industry to determine and set rates for businesses, homeowners and other entities is the caliber of the fire service. A top-quality fire department ensures lower premiums. Would you move your family or business to a city with a less than adequate fire and EMS service?

The fact is, the Fire Department is already understaffed by NFPA standards. The current contract only requires five on engines and five on ladder trucks. Compounding that shortage, the contract allows the city to run up to 35 fire companies a day with only four firefighters, a far cry from the NFPA-advised five and six.

While it is true that EMS runs are up in relation to fire runs, the Chicago Fire Department has adapted well to that change. At the time of the strike in 1980, there were less than 30 ambulances. Today there are about 80. Firefighters are now cross-trained as paramedics and EMTs, and engines and ladder trucks respond to a greatly increased workload in that regard. Yet fires still persist. Synthetic materials have caused fires to burn much hotter and the smoke produced to be much more toxic. The nature of the job takes a toll. Firefighters on average have a dramatically reduced life expectancy compared to the general public. Do we want to add to that burden by reducing the numbers necessary to do the job?

It is obvious to all that the City of Chicago faces serious financial problems that must be addressed. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has a big responsibility. Perhaps we should ask about the staffing levels in the IG’s office. How many employees work under Joe Ferguson? What is the annual budget allotted that office? Could he get by with a 20% reduction in staff? Questions worth asking.

The people of Chicago, which includes all of the members of the Chicago Fire Department, as well as the Chicago Police Department, Streets and San, Water, Parks and all the workers and citizens who embody this great city, deserve better. Simple-minded, harmful policy suggestions are counterproductive. Mayor Lightfoot deserves better as well.

James E. McNally, a retired fire department lieutenant, is the former president of the Chicago Fire Fighters Union, Local 2, International Association of Firefighters.

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