Sound the alarm

Fiscal sanity hits the fire department

When it comes to fire departments, I have street cred.

I am junior fire chief emeritus for Elmhurst Elementary School. My yearlong reign, won by virtue of writing an essay on how to survive house fires, stretched from 1973 to 1974. For a solid week, a fire engine, siren blaring, picked me up at home and delivered me to school each day. Before that, I was a victim, having stuck my leg down a drainpipe at a demolished laundromat after wandering from the mobile home where I spent formative years. It took the better part of an afternoon, and a jackhammer, to extricate me. Firefighters were there the whole time – while I bawled, they gave me candy and let me wear one of their hats, but it was way too big.

That's the thing about the fire department: They always show up, no matter what, no matter the time, whether it's a homeowner with house ablaze or a mom who can't think of anyone else to summon when her kid gets trapped in a drainpipe or the upper reaches of an oak tree. This is why firefighters, no matter the town, are popular. They're heroes without guns or body cams.

Times change, though, and that happened last week when the Springfield City Council trimmed the fire department's budget by $1.4 million. As cuts go, this one was itty-bitty, considering the department still will have $40 million to spend during the next year. Nonetheless, fire chief Brandon Blough warned afterward that layoffs might be coming.

As is often the case, another city showed Springfield the way. This time, it was Peoria, where the city council last fall eliminated 17 firefighting jobs, plus two engines, plus a firehouse. Up north, a pandemic-fueled budget crisis forced the city's hand. Here, it was a matter of common sense, recognition that, if we built a fire department from scratch, it wouldn't look like the fire department we have.

Fires these days are rare. Since 2015, we've had about 500 each year, roughly half of those involving structures, but only a half-dozen or so are considered large. The fire department, though, is built as if towering infernos are weekly events. During the past year, the fire department responded to 19,974 calls (including 2,181 false alarms and 11,023 medical aid dispatches). It works out to fewer than five calls per day for each of the city's 12 firehouses.

The union has too much control under a contract that requires at least 49 people to be on duty around the clock. The late Frank Edwards, a former Springfield fire chief, knew that was too many and tried cutting back during his brief stint as mayor a decade ago. An arbitrator ruled in favor of the union. If a fire chief existed who knew how to cut budgets or hire minorities – a dozen of the fire department's 221 employees aren't white – we couldn't bring that person to Springfield because the contract doesn't allow the city to hire a chief from outside the department. Twenty people in the fire department make six figures; including benefits, each fire department job costs taxpayers $172,600. We employ 87 firefighters, 48 driver/engineers, 64 captains, nine battalion chiefs, three division chiefs and a pair of deputy division chiefs.

"It just seems like we're over-brassed," Ward 7 Ald. Joe McMenamin observed during a budget hearing last month. "We've got nine battalion chiefs. They're ready for a fire that might happen once a week."

That the fire department drains coffers isn't news. For years, Bob Gray, president of the Citizens Club of Springfield, has argued that ever-rising costs in the police and fire departments are dragging Springfield down: We're spending so much on cops and firefighters that we can't afford to patch potholes or revive downtown or do a lot of other things that need doing.

This year, as in past years, Gray sent an email to council members as they crafted a municipal budget: On a per capita basis, we spend more on fire protection than similar Illinois cities where disaster hasn't happened. His message finally resonated, but Gray says that a $10 million trim would be better than the council-approved haircut.

"My position for the past five years has been, we need this conversation to start," Gray says. "And it has, a little bit."

Ward 1 Ald. Chuck Redpath tells me that he doesn't want deep, sudden cuts, like what happened in Peoria. But we can't keep going on like we have been, he says, even if it means assigning brass to fire trucks.

"We have to rethink this," Redpath says. "Our trends and directions are going in the wrong direction."

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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