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Fire officials: Middletown hotel fire response affected by layoffs

A hotel fire Sunday night from which there were no serious injuries could have been worse, firefighters say, claiming their response was affected by recent layoffs.

It took 27 minutes for all 20 firefighters from the Middletown Division of Fire and surrounding communities to respond to a blaze at the Super 8 Motel at 3553 Commerce Drive, said Middletown Deputy Fire Chief Tom Snively. Smoke coming from the building was reported at about 8:30 p.m. Sunday night. The first emergency crews arrived on scene within 7 minutes.

“At the time, all we had was two fire trucks in the entire city to respond,” Snively said.

Franklin, Monroe and Trenton fire crews also responded.

A hotel fire is considered high risk because people could be sleeping, Snively said. Also, the response requires evacuating the building while also preventing flames from spreading and putting the fire out, Snively said.

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The standard response would have been 20 firefighters arriving in less than 10 minutes, he said. However, at the time, Middletown had two engines staffed by six firefighters available to respond. Other crews working were on the scene of other incidents, he said.

On arrival, they saw heavy smoke coming from the second floor.

“We did not have enough people assembled to get the hotel evacuated and put the fire out,” he said. “Fortunately, the fire was contained to the one room.”

“If it would have happened a few hours later when people were asleep, the fire probably wouldn’t have been determined as quickly,” he said.

Any time there is a possibility of extensive injury or property loss such as in hotels, schools or apartment complexes, the process is to immediately call for mutual aid, which was done in this case, said Middletown City Manager Doug Adkins. Each community cannot always staff in anticipation of a large emergency, and the purpose of mutual aid is to deal with these types of situations, he said.

“This response shows both the hard work of our fire crews and the challenges associated with reduced budgets and staffing. The initial unit was on scene quickly. The medic calls were all handled quickly, as they came in, and appropriately,” Adkins said in an email Monday. “The second fire unit had to come from the farthest station.”

“While the optimum response would have been more firefighters responding more quickly, it should be noted that without the layoffs, only one additional unit would have responded from Middletown,” Adkins said. “We would have counted on mutual aid for assistance in these types of calls, as we assist our neighbors when a structure fire happens in large occupied structures in other jurisdictions.”

“The city takes this situation seriously, and we will be discussing our response and any potential improvements that could be made moving forward,” he said.

Members of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 336 voted to reject a proposal from the city to prevent layoffs, citing safety concerns. Votes were counted Friday and the layoffs went in effect Saturday. A total 15 jobs are being cut, including four jobs due to attrition and 11 layoffs.

“The sticking point for the firefighters was the staffing profile the city is forcing on us. In addition to that, the amount of staffing,” said Greg Justice, Local 336 president.

Whether union members accepted the tentative agreement or not, the minimum staffing level at any given time is being reduced from the previous level of 16 to 13, Justice said.

“If that fire would have came three or four hours later, there would likely have been a fatality or more due to smoke inhalation. There’s just a high loss of life in hotels because of 65 to 70 people sleeping versus a normal residence,” he said.

“The city of Middletown Fire and EMS service is very unsafe due to limited manpower due to our staffing levels,” he said.

Snively was not among the responders, but spoke to this newspaper on Monday.

The fire was ruled accidental due to an unattended candle left burning, according to the deputy chief. Damage estimates are approximately $22,000, including property and content, according to the fire department.

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