Perrysburg, Ohio, is a growing suburb of Toledo in the northeast part of the state on the southern edge of the Maumee River. The city has been growing steadily in recent years and currently has a population of over 21,000. The city’s income took a hit in 2009 when the recession hit, but has rebounded steadily and now boasts annual tax revenue in excess of the pre-2009 figures, allowing the city to increase its annual budget every year since.
This past year, the mayor and city council, with the blessing of the city’s fire chief, decided to make permanent cuts to fire department staffing – reducing the minimum on-duty staffing level from five down to four. When the city’s firefighters began advocating for restoring the staffing back to five for public safety reasons, the city administration acted swiftly to silence them — they unilaterally implemented new policies that prohibit the firefighters from sharing their experience, expertise, and research-based facts with the public and/or the media.
Here’s the new section of Policy #2 adopted on December 3, 2014, that went into effect on January 1, 2015:
Ideally, we would have like to speak to Perrysburg’s firefighters to tell you this story, but, as you can see above, they aren’t allowed. Instead, we’ll tell you what you would hear them say if they had not been muzzled by the Director of Public Safety, Bridgette Kabat, and Fire Chief Jeff Klein.
If you were allowed to speak to Perrysburg firefighters, they would likely tell you about the guidelines for fire department staffing that are recommended by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA):
- 18.104.22.168 Fire companies whose primary functions are to pump and deliver water and perform basic fire fighting at fires, including search and rescue, shall be known as engine companies.
- 22.214.171.124.1 These companies shall be staffed with a minimum of four on-duty personnel.
- 126.96.36.199.2 In jurisdictions with tactical hazards, high-hazard occupancies, high incident frequencies, geographical restrictions, or other pertinent factors as identified by the AHJ, these companies shall be staffed with a minimum of five or six on duty members.
If you were allowed to continue the conversation, the firefighters would also tell you how Perrysburg easily qualifies as being in that latter category (188.8.131.52.2) with sprawling growth, eight schools, four assisted living homes, five elderly retirement communities, one high-rise building, multiple interstates dividing the city, a railroad, shopping centers (including The Town Center at Levis Commons, a 319,000 square-foot lifestyle center), hotels and, prominently figuring into the Perrysburg landscape, the Maumee River.
If the firefighters were allowed to talk to you to explain what having all of those various things means, they would tell you that the NFPA Fire Protection Handbook defines hazard levels of occupancies by types with each hazard level carrying inherent risks:
High-Hazard Occupancies— Schools, hospitals, nursing homes, explosive plants, refineries, high-rise buildings and other high life hazard or large fire potential occupancies.
The firefighters, if they were allowed to talk to us, would point out that having such a wide array of high-hazard items in the city means that the National Fire Protection Association states that there should always be at least five members (six is better) on duty at all times. But since telling us this information would violate the city’s new policy about speaking out in conflict with the City Administration’s decision to cut staffing and put residents and firefighters at greater risk, we won’t hear any Perrysburg firefighters sharing this information.
If the Perrysburg firefighters were allowed to talk to us, they would probably point us to study after study after study that details the importance of having a minimum of five on duty members at all times because it not only increases the efficiency of the response to an emergency for the victims, it also decreases the physical stress on the firefighters. Perhaps the Perrysburg firefighters might also explain how a two-person team on an engine is handicapped when approaching a working fire as they have to wait until another colleague arrives in order to safely execute any form of search and rescue. The firefighters, if they were allowed to answer your questions, would explain that this means that when the two-person engine arrives at your burning house, you’d better hope that no one is trapped inside as they’ll have to wait for a third member to arrive (that firefighter the city decided to cut) in order to attempt to safely enter the premises.
But again, because the City Administration wants to suppress this information, Perrysburg residents won’t hear this information.
If you wanted to know how Perrysburg got to this point, the members of the Perrysburg Fire Department, if they were allowed to talk, would tell you that they tried to publicize the dangers of permanently cutting staffing. They would tell you how they tried to share this information with Perrysburg residents and even answered questions posed to them by members of the City Council. They would tell you that they started a petition to gather signatures to support the five-person minimum staffing level to keep both themselves and the residents of Perrysburg safer. They would also probably tell you that the firefighters rightly believed that spreading information about safety and prevention and recommended practices fell into not only their job description, but their responsibility as members of the Perrysburg Fire Division to inform the public.
Perrysburg firefighters would also tell you how the city’s fire division expenditures have run under budget for the past six years despite an annual increase in the number of runs each and every year, from about 1,800 runs in 2009 to over 2,200 runs in 2013 (an increase of 22%). They would tell you that despite this increase in services provided for the public good in this prosperous city, the fire division has returned an average of over $192,000 to the city’s general fund budget annually over the past six years (saving the city $1.15 million over that span).
The City Administration, especially Perrysburg Mayor Michael Olmstead, will tell you it’s about saving money. Olmstead would also explain how disappointed he is that the City Council scuttled his plan to commit the city to a $2 to $2.5 million project to connect the downtown to the riverfront, an amount of money that is strikingly close to the same amount that has been annually cut from the city’s budget that is needed to build a second fire station for the expanding city. The second fire station has been up for discussion for years and is perennially talked about as “being built next year.”
Finally, if we were able to talk to the Perrysburg firefighters directly, they would probably point us to a 2009 Administrative Review of the Fire Division conducted by the City of Perrysburg Finance Department. This review was completed in October 2009 at the end of a massive drop in income tax revenue for the city (as we mentioned earlier) and was seeking ways the division could be more efficient and cost effective. From that review, at which time the five-person minimum staffing level was in effect, came these items:
Chief Klein believes that we are currently adequately staffed for existing service levels. We currently have seven (7) Firefighters/Paramedics assigned to each fire shift with a minimum of five (5) on duty.
Public fire safety education is one of the most effective efforts that can be used to reduce loss of life in fire. The key to survival is knowledge through education. We currently provide public safety and education forums upon request. We do not currently charge for any of these programs, as it is a public service to the community.
Also, Chief Klein would like to see more of a responsiveness to the community, such as being more involved in community events. Educational programs, fire safety programs, car-seat programs are all part of community awareness and can assist with positive public relations in the city.
In 2009, a year when the city’s tax revenue had dropped by $2.6 million, staffing levels were ideal and the chief was advocating for more community outreach by the members, including programs to increase “community awareness” as a “public service to the community.” In 2015, however, despite tax revenues exceeding 2008 levels, a fire division that operates consistently under budget in the face of increasing demands, and a city whose population is up nearly 10%, staffing levels have been permanently cut and the experts who are supposed to educate the community about fire safety have been silenced and grounded — in addition to being silenced, on duty members are only permitted to travel out of the non-centrally located fire station and into the community (e.g., block parties, public parks, childrens’ sporting events) if the Fire Chief deems it worthy.
It’s too bad, really, that Michael Olmstead, the new mayor (and former city council member; more on him in a future article) is willing to put his personal politics above the safety of Perrysburg’s residents and firefighters, and handicap their ability to do the work that the city’s website makes sound it sound like they are supposed to do:
If we were able to talk to Perrysburg’s firefighters, we would definitely ask them how they are able meet their “goal to be active in the community” and “educate citizens on fire safety” when those concepts run counter to what the City Administration believes; a city that has these firefighters locked and silent behind the firehouse doors.