The Reading fire department has been chronically understaffed for almost a decade now.
Fire Chief William Stoudt Jr. is hopeful that a new grant from the federal government will help correct this problem.
Stoudt on Monday evening asked city council to support the fire department’s request for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that would cover the department’s costs to hire 12 additional firefighters.
The SAFER grant – Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response – would cover the salaries and benefits of the 12 firefighters for three years. The grant would pay out between $ 1.4 million and $ 1.5 million per year.
Stoudt also wanted to ensure that the city would commit to funding additional firefighters after the grant, an estimated cost of $ 1.1 million to $ 1.6 million per year.
“There is no guarantee that we would get this grant,” Stoudt said. “And we’re not looking to apply without a commitment to keep this endowment for the long term. “
Stoudt wants to add one to each of the city’s three ladder and truck companies in the department’s four platoons. This would increase the total number of firefighters on a move from 18 to 21.
Adding officers to ladder trucks is to accomplish an important firefighting goal.
“Our lifting ladder trucks are primarily dedicated to saving lives,” said Second Deputy Fire Chief Michael Glore. “We decided to give them an officer to better facilitate this.”
Truck officers would lead fire crews into a burning building in search of the occupants, Stoudt and Glore said. Something that is a luxury now.
“We are losing the experienced guys and having a few newer guys on a truck with no experience makes us a little wary,” said First Deputy Fire Chief James Stoudt. “It would be great for them to have that little nudge from an officer to point them in the right direction.”
In Reading, only two firefighters have a fire engine or ladder truck, well below the national standard.
The National Fire Protection Association, an organization that sets firefighting standards, says the minimum staff of an engine and truck or ladder company should be four firefighters per company or device.
“If you go to Philly or any other urban environment and talk to less than four people (on a fire apparatus) they think you’re crazy,” said William Stoudt. “And we’re talking about anything over two being extra.”
The fire department had 22 firefighters on each shift and was able to staff seven engine companies, three truck and ladder companies and one rescue company before the city entered into Law 47 , the State program for cities in financial difficulty, in 2009.
Today the service has just 18 firefighters per shift and can only hire five engine companies, three truck and ladder companies, and one rescue company.
“We are not looking to increase the number of devices (in service),” said William Stoudt. “We’re looking to increase the number of people on devices. “
The president of Local 1803 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Jeremy Grove, supports the decision to increase the number of firefighters on the devices and hopes to increase the staff to pre-Bill 47 levels.
“It really took our roster and knocked us down on our device,” Grove said. “This brings us back to where we were at the start of Act 47.”
The fire department cannot even meet NFPA standards with its current staff when answering a call.
The NFPA states that the first alarm response to a two-story home with no basement or attached house should be 19 firefighters.
“It’s not our bread and butter here,” said William Stoudt.
“We are dealing with 2 1/2 and 3 story houses with basements and exhibitions (terraced houses).
An initial alarm response in the city is bringing four engines, two ladder trucks, a rescue truck and an ambulance, the chief said.
Although the two ambulance firefighters are trained firefighters, the city cannot count on them to help fight the blaze, he said.
“They are dedicated to patient care,” he said. “If there are no patients to treat, yes, we can get help from them outside. But again, they must remain available to take care of patients. “
The NFPA also states that 28 firefighters must respond to commercial or apartment complex fires on the first alarm. The reading would need to call a second alarm and still could only trigger 24 firefighters.
If a high-rise building is on fire, the NFPA suggests that 42 or 43 firefighters intervene at the first alarm. Reading would need to sound a third alarm and that would only bring 41 firefighters to the scene.
“Our first alarm mission on all of these different scenarios is the same,” said William Stoudt. “It’s 18 (firefighters) whether it’s a commercial building or garden apartments like Jamestown. The downtown skyscrapers we go with 18 (on the first initial alarm). We are well below what is required.
During Monday’s meeting, teams were dispatched to a possible house fire.
“Right now 18 firefighters from Reading are on their way to 726 Locust Street for smoke in the basement of a house,” Glore said Monday evening. “The house at 726 Locust has an attic and attached houses. We know these firefighters are going there right now, understaffed. “
It turned out that the fire department found smoke in the basement due to a malfunction of the oil burner.
To the stage
The NFPA suggests that fire crews arrive at the scene of a fire within four minutes of being dispatched.
Reading manages to do it most of the time, Grove said.
“We’re close to those numbers, but when it comes to a structural fire, for example, it’s an event in its own right,” he said. “There are so many tasks that have to be done at the same time that it can become overwhelming very quickly if you don’t have the right staff. “
It’s when crews arrive on scene that things can get chaotic.
“We have to put water on the fire,” Grove said. “We need to connect to a positive water source and launch ladders on time to effectively extinguish the fire and save lives.
“When you are understaffed, you can’t focus on all of these functions. These guys are doing double duty.
Takes a toll
Despite the understaffing, Reading firefighters have managed to perform extremely well, officials said.
“Our training has become increasingly intense to meet these standards with the small staff,” Grove said. “Without it, we wouldn’t be as successful.
Always short of staff, firefighters have to work overtime, which can be physically and mentally draining.
“It’s definitely wreaking havoc,” Grove said. “Some guys are doing a lot of overtime and could potentially be here for consecutive shifts. The things you see can really hurt your mental personality.
The city was able to count on surrounding municipalities and their fire departments to help each other out, but Glore and William Stoudt said they could no longer count on this as they once could.
“They have their own challenges with staffing and staffing,” Glore said, referring to city departments. “You can call on self-help volunteers, but it’s an unpredictable number. We don’t know what to expect. The number of volunteers arriving in town can vary widely from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
The city’s firefighters also intervene with surrounding municipalities to lend a hand
Late Monday morning, some of Reading’s firefighters helped fight a two-alarm blaze in West Reading.
Find a solution
Mayor Eddie Moran and general manager Abraham Amoros said the administration wanted to fix the issue.
“We are the fourth largest municipality in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Amoros said. “We are sorely understaffed. We need to tackle this problem and we also need to be creative. This administration firmly believes that this investment is worth it. “
Municipal Auditor Maria Rodriguez asked how the additional staff would be paid at the end of the grant.
City finance director Jamar Kelly said it was still under discussion.
Kelly said part of the reason the fire department is bringing this to council’s attention is that it should be paid with an increase in taxes or an increase in the sewer fund payment.
Council appeared to support the subsidy and the need to hire more firefighters.
“It’s a reality check that we all need to have,” City Councilor Marcia Goodman-Hinnershitz said. “Throughout Bill 47, we have always focused on finances regardless of the fact that we have not been able to maintain a sufficient number of our departments. It is not a surprise but it is still alarming.
She asked Moran’s administration to come up with a solid plan for sustainability.
“We have to know that this will not go away after three years of the grant,” she said.
City councilor Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz feared that the city’s population would increase, but the city’s firefighter ranks would not increase, and she wanted to know what the plan was if the city did not get the grant.
“I don’t know if I really have an answer,” said William Stoudt. “We have been operating with this current endowment since 2011. Whatever happens, we will get on with our tasks day in and day out.