Fire union president Greg Justice said the laying off of 11 Middletown firefighters will increase the workload of a department that he said already is 60 percent busier than fire departments in surrounding communities.
Justice said the layoffs, and firefighter staffing dropping from 16 to 13, will create “a huge reduction” in services. Once these cuts are made, Justice said, Middletown firefighters will be twice as busy as those in neighboring cities based on the number of fire and emergency runs and the size of the fire department.
“We have a shrinking workforce and our crews are already at maximum thresholds,” he said.
After members of Middletown Firefighters Local 336 rejected the city’s Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) late last week by a 44 to 25 vote, 11 firefighters were laid off at 7 p.m. Saturday, City Manager Doug Adkins said. The layoffs occurred because the city’s needs to reduce its budget. He had hoped by restructuring the fire department, the union would approve the agreement and that would save the 11 positions. Four more positions will be eliminated through attrition, Adkins said.
Justice said firefighters were “very disappointed” a deal wasn’t made because their top priority is “serving the public and providing safe and adequate” fire and emergency medical services to residents.
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Justice added it was “in bad taste” for the city to lay off the firefighters on Labor Day weekend.
“We should have been celebrating the work that they do,” said Justice, who added the firefighters collectively had about 40 years of service in the city.
On Tuesday, Adkins said at the city council meeting that the city will continue to provide the “best public safety services” available.
Adkins said that during the last decade, the cost of providing public safety increased by $2.5 million, while other city services were reduced by $2.2 million. He said the cost of safety services is 72 percent in Middletown; whereas 57 percent is the national average.
At the current rate, Adkins said, the city would be “broke” within four years.
He said Middletown firefighters battled 51 structure fires last year, or less than one per week.
Adkins and City Manager Lawrence Mulligan said the city will implement a First Emergency First (FEF) policy, where the firefighters will respond with the “most appropriate” piece of equipment, an ambulance or fire truck.
The city also plans to enter into a mutual agreement with Monroe and Franklin that automatically kicks in on fire calls. Mulligan called this “a step forward” in regional cooperation among Middletown and surrounding communities.
He called the changes “a turning point” for the city and Middletown Division of Fire.
Mulligan said after reviewing the city budget, council decided there was “no place else to make cuts” except in public safety.
Council member Dora Bronston, a staunch supporter of public safety, said she was “very saddened” that an agreement couldn’t be reached.
The day after firefighters were laid off, there was a hotel fire in the city that showed how response times would be affected, Justice said. He said the first emergency crews arrived within seven minutes to the fire at Super 8 Motel at 3553 Commerce Drive. He said it took 27 minutes — longer than it would have before the layoffs — for all 20 firefighters from the Middletown Division of Fire and surrounding communities to respond to the blaze.
Deputy Chief Joe Snively said the standard response would have been 20 firefighters arriving in less than 10 minutes. 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.
Franklin, Monroe and Trenton fire crews also responded.
Adkins said 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.”
Mutual aid calls between fire and emergency medical services in Butler County have increased significantly in recent years.
In 2012, Hamilton received 33 mutual aid assists from other communities, according to department statistics. In 2013, that number quadrupled to 120, and through the first half of this year, the number is at 91.
In Monroe, the number of mutual aids received jumped from 30 in 2011 to 85 in 2012.
“We’re always impacted by mutual aid in some form,” said Chief Steve Dawson of Hamilton’s fire department. “Anytime you have to call upon another community to send somebody in, there is a vacancy in that community … it’s the nature of the fire service. Mutual aid is a growing trend. I guess it’s the model we have to work under now with shrinking budgets, and shrinking resources in each community. We have to rely on each other to fill that gap.”
What’s driving those jumps is the fact that the state cut funding to local governments in recent years, forcing cities to cut or reallocate resources, said Chief Darrell Yater of the Trenton Fire Department.
“These cities are now relying more and more on smaller mutual aid departments to provide services. When you take a city like Trenton that only has one squad, and somebody calls for mutual aid, and we move there to assist them, then we’re completely without a squad. You’re taking away our resources to protect our city when we respond to mutual aid.”
Last year, Hamilton closed Station 27 on Shuler Avenue to cut costs, shut down two engine companies and laid off five firefighters.
Mutual aid agreements have long stood for fire departments to assist each other with fire or medical runs. But some city fire departments are stretched so thin, mutual aid has become more of a primary resource than a backup.
“A lot of departments are using mutual aid now to handle their primary runs because they don’t have the manpower to do it,” Yater said. “We’ve been to Middletown on runs to assist them.”
Trenton’s situation changed after 2013 when the city passed a fire levy, allowing the department to have part-time employees rather than being strictly volunteers. As a result, Trenton’s mutual aid calls to other communities went up from 46 in 2012 to 72 in 2013.
Staff writers Chelsey Levingston and Eric Robinette contributed to this report.