Des Moines firefighters say their biggest fear is not being able to meet the needs of citizens. As their staffing numbers dwindle, it's becoming a growing concern.
Already this year, Des Moines firefighters have responded to thousands of fire emergencies. Eventually, each fire is fought, thanks to the 285 firefighters in the department. They staff 10 stations in Des Moines around the clock, responding to every call from fully engulfed homes to chemical spills.
The local firefighter’s union president, Travis Hurley, worries the calls are spreading the department too thin.
“We’re concerned about being able to meet the needs of the citizens,” says Hurley.
In situations like the Younkers Building fire in March, the fire department relies on neighboring communities for assistance, which is standard. However, firefighters say their strain doesn’t come from the massive fires that happen every once in a while but the fires they are forced to put out every day.
“Our system is stressed, it’s strained, our people are stressed and strained and we definitely feel the need for more people,” says Hurley.
In 2009, the department was at what they considered a full staff, with 311 firefighters. Today that number is down 26, leaving just 285 on the job and more plan to retire this year.
Fire Chief, John TeKippe, knows it’s a problem.
“We have fewer firefighters than I would like to see that`s for sure.”
The department responded to 21,000 calls last year, a record number, with a historically low level of firefighters. The 206,000 people living in Des Moines are served by 285 firefighters. Compared to other similar sized cities, our numbers are considerably lower.
Montgomery, Alabama has a population of 205,000 with 459 firefighters on staff. Rochester, New York has 210,000 people staffed with a department of 498 personnel. Lastly, Spokane, Washington has 324 firefighters serving a community of 209,000 people.
All three departments averaged 30,000 calls last year, an amount Des Moines is expected to hit in the next five years. Unless firefighters are added during that time, the fire department won’t be able to keep up.
“It’s not sustainable over time. There`s a point at which there`s just too great of a work load over too much time,” says TeKippe.
The strain has already forced the department to reduce the number of people operating fire engines and trucks. Ideally four men belong on a truck but TeKippe says, “I just don`t have the resources to have four.”
Some trucks are also left parked, simply because there isn't enough staff to run them, leading to longer drives for other crews.
“I’m stationed down at station 8 which is out by the airport. We end up making runs up by Merle Hay more frequently,” says Hurley.
But one thing stands in the way.
“We`re up against a budget. We would never choose to staff in this manner; to have fewer people doing more work. We are only here because of budget,” says TeKippe.
One of the people who oversees the budget is Mayor Frank Cownie. He says the number of firefighters isn't going to change for at least the next two years.
“You can’t increase because you`ve certified your budget. You can’t increase the levy, so you have to cut. There`s no way to get around it.”
About 60-percent of the city`s budgets goes towards public safety. The Mayor says that`s more than ever before. His main concern is the taxpayers.
“We know how our citizens feel about property taxes; they feel they are too high. Oh by the way our fire people are full time, they are professional they are there 24 hours a day 365 days a year.”
Mayor Cownie says the only way the public safety budget would go up, is if response times fall below requirements or if public safety is put at risk.
“We`re going to do everything that we can to make sure that they [the department] have the size of the force that is needed to meet the demand of our citizens.”
Firefighters say the only reason they are currently meeting those demands is because they're putting themselves in danger.
“The citizens themselves don`t always necessarily see the decrease in services so we make up for it ourselves putting our self at increased risk,” says Hurley.
Hurley wonders when he`ll begin to feel the safety in numbers.
“We have these large events it`s a matter of time before we get caught with the additional event that pushes our system over the edge.”
Despite the loss of the 26 firefighters in the past 5 years, a poll taken by the city says 89.5% of people say they are happy with the fire departments services.