Government & Politics

Alarm bells go off over KC fire company reductions

FRED BLOCHER/The Kansas City Star_081307_Monday afternoon's crew of Rescue 31 checked out some of the equipment the new unit holds at Fire Station #17 at 34th Street and The Paseo. The truck even holds an inflatable boat and outboard engine (left center).

cutline: The Kansas City Fire Department’s new heavy rescue trucks are outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment. On Monday, the crew at Station 17 checked out some of the gadgets.
FRED BLOCHER/The Kansas City Star_081307_Monday afternoon's crew of Rescue 31 checked out some of the equipment the new unit holds at Fire Station #17 at 34th Street and The Paseo. The truck even holds an inflatable boat and outboard engine (left center). cutline: The Kansas City Fire Department’s new heavy rescue trucks are outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment. On Monday, the crew at Station 17 checked out some of the gadgets.

A plan to cut two fire companies, one in south Kansas City and one near the Country Club Plaza, has some firefighters and others ringing alarm bells about leaving key parts of the city vulnerable.

“It’s one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever heard of,” said Mike Cambiano, president of Local 42 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents Kansas City’s municipal firefighters and ambulance workers.

Cambiano is concerned about plans to close Station 1 at the former Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base and Pumper Company 32 near Westport on June 30. The 30 firefighters affected will be reassigned to vacant positions elsewhere, but it will leave worrisome coverage gaps in high-risk areas, he said.

City Manager Troy Schulte responds that the Fire Department has to start reining in costs and argues that the closings are justified and manageable.

But Councilman John Sharp, chairman of the City Council’s public safety committee, said Pumper 32 on West 43rd Street is very busy. He’s even more worried about closing Station 1 at 155th Street and Hangar Road, near the new National Nuclear Security Administration weapons parts plant and other burgeoning industrial parks in south Kansas City.

“Without that station, we don’t have any station that can provide a prompt emergency medical response or fire suppression response to the NNSA facility,” Sharp said. “It’s the size of a small town.”

Station 1 has the lowest call volume of any Kansas City station, though, and Cambiano concedes that the union agreed to those company closings in a labor agreement in 2012 to avoid more draconian firefighter layoffs.

The city was able to avert the closings in 2012 with a two-year, $4.6 million federal grant that expires June 30. Cambiano had hoped the grant would be renewed, but federal budget fights have delayed the grant process.

Schulte said he’s not inclined to keep using federal grants to pay for fire personnel because that money stream is unpredictable. Schulte said he’s confident other companies can cover the city adequately, while a nearby Grandview company can help protect the weapons plant.

Schulte and City Councilwoman Jan Marcason, chairwoman of the council’s finance department, said the city simply has to find a way to control the Fire Department’s costs, which are running $10 million over budget this fiscal year, including $7 million in unbudgeted overtime.

Fire Chief Paul Berardi said he is taking steps to control overtime expenses in time for the new budget, which starts May 1.

Berardi said part of the overtime occurred because the department had staffing shortages and was down 11 paramedics, about 10 percent of the total paramedic ranks, for much of last year. A report of the department’s top 20 overtime recipients for the past fiscal year showed overtime ranged from nearly $24,000 to more than $73,000. A few paramedics earned more in overtime than they did in salary.

Berardi said he’s now filled the paramedic vacancies and is filling some key firefighter positions as well, which should reduce overtime, although it won’t significantly reduce total salary and benefits costs.

He said he’s not happy about having to close two companies, but the union agreed to it and he believes it is manageable. He has met with weapons plant officials to inform them of the station closing.

NNSA spokeswoman Gayle Fisher said the plant is covered by both Grandview and Kansas City.

She said plant officials “are satisfied that this arrangement will sufficiently protect the building and its occupants, especially given the fact that several fire-retardant and fire-suppressing features are part of the building’s design.”

Sharp said Grandview can respond if it is available, but Kansas City’s next closest station is too far away, and the area needs better coverage.

“We’re leaving that whole area bare,” he said. “For us to continue to attract jobs to the Highway 150 corridor, we have got to be able to provide public safety services in a timely manner.”

He said he’s confident another round of federal grants will soon be available to sustain the firefighter ranks, and argued that Kansas City should find the money to keep the two companies staffed for a few months until it can again seek that grant funding.

Cambiano said Pumper 32 runs 2,250 calls per year, serving a district that includes the Country Club Plaza and Brookside. He said that’s a lot of calls for other companies to absorb.

Schulte insists it is doable.

“As the need arises, we can pull equipment and crews from other parts of the city to cover any need,” he said. “The city will survive.”

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