BUDGET STRAIN: DM Fire Staffing Levels ‘Unsustainable’

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.

16 comments

  • dan

    Interesting, I drove by a new fire station and it was magnificent. I wondered how much money they wasted on such a big oversized facility for fire trucks. I see the story doesn’t say a word on how much salary they have per fireman, but they need more. They look around the country and find a few depts with more people than what they have. I would say there are some with fewer too. Nobody says pay cut or cut back on anything so they can hire more, they just look at the taxpayer with hunger in their eyes. Look over to the west and California is bankrupt because of big salaries on fire depts and police. And just say it can’t happen here.

    • cory

      Let me ask you a question. How much do some public officials make in the city of Des Moines that dont make life and death decisions every work day. That new station, the one they live in every third day and lose a third of their life living in. Everybody think firefighters are over paid but when there is a medical emergency or a fire they had better be there and fast. All I have to say is just remember that when you have a emergency dont cry about it taking the fire dept so long to get there.

  • Ol' Perfessor Hacksaw

    And, yet the City Council hasn’t yet seen see a Bike Trail or a Downtown project that they would spend money on ??? Not only is it risking lives in taking extra time to a rescue call it is dangerous having the trucks going at high speed all axcross town.

  • Al

    Part of the problem is for every dollar paid by the city in salary they are required by law to pay an additional 30 cents toward pensions while the firefighter pays in 9 cents per dollar. Same for police.

  • Mike D

    Yes,,look out west to California, it burns down a little more every year. It’s like many service industries, deficits are made up by the dedicated workers. Let homeowners put together bucket brigades. The battle cry will soon become…” Keep it burning boys we are all most there “! Good luck Des Moines.

  • Ol' Perfessor Hacksaw

    To give you an idea of how the City cares about its services look no further than the Airport. With the Air Guard jets leaving with thier fire service, the Council voted to approve contractring out fire service for the Airport and they will have a crew of three now to cover an airline crash ? For an estimated 60-70 cents per passenger flight at the airport they could have had a current City trained Fire Dept. force like before ? BUT, at the same time the Council based Airport Authority recently announced plans for a new Terminal located off of Army Post road cosing approximately a half a $Billion dollars. Yes BILLION dollars. A Airport Authority figure was quoted saying that they wanted business people flying into Des Moines to feel like they were coming to a large City. I wonder how many taxpayers care about that ?

  • CP

    What the Airport Authority has done is not agreeable to say the least, however, the AA is an independent business and the city has veto power over its decisions as a whole but chooses to let it run itself. It could have gone with the City of Des Moines contracting its fire services but it was cheaper to go contract to this yahoo 3 man company. Hold the Airport accountable for this, not this city. Unfortunately I agree with the report that you won’t see a change until something drastic happens or people start to lose their lives over this. It’s a shame it has to come to that.

  • Harry Moyer

    That’s the Republibag mantra. Give tax breaks/welfare to corporations. When it can’t be made up by bilking the middle class and cutting programs for the poor, it comes down to public services. And what’s always the Republibag answer??? “We can’t keep paying our police and fire depts living wages and pensions for the riske they take! We’ll privatize EVERYTHING so we aren’t accountable for anything! And who doesn’t like paying more for a service, but get less? It’s working out real well down south where your home can burn down while the private fire department watches.”
    Yep! That’s what we need here in Iowa. More Teabuggery.

  • mellowsmooth

    It is sad but I agree with CP. Its going to take someone important losing a life or drastic like another Yonkers fire but this time in an occupied bldg. Yes people rate that they are satisfied with fire protection in the city and this is a very good thing, but of the people surveyed there should be a follow-up question, have you ever needed the fire or EMS service? As a firefighter I know first hand that surprisingly little is known about the fire service. Most people dont know that when they call an ambulance it may have to come from the other side of town. Say medic 10 on the very southeastern side of town if it has to go way west like say by Roosevelt. Also I am not sure if its something high up in the food chain saying no or if its a skill thing maybe even a union thing but DMFD never seems to want to call on mutual aid. DSM is surrounded on all sides by very capable and willing volunteer and part time/paid on call FDs. But DMFD will run its people ragged before they call for aid. I get that some are not paramedic level services but they are just as willing to help out. There is also several private companies like Fraser and Midwest Ambulance that do wonderful jobs and would help in a pinch as well.

  • mellowsmooth

    Another thing too is that the numbers need to be put into terms the average person who knows nothing of the fire service can understand. People look now and say wow only 25 cut? What are they crying for my company just cut 70 jobs! Put it in terms of what they’re not getting anymore. For example, 25 firefighters can staff 6 four man pumper trucks, or 4 ladder trucks with a crew of 6 or my favorite, 12 ambulances! Put it in terms like that and I bet there will be reaction especially if you tell communities that they dont have an ambulance serving the neighborhood due to budget and should they need one its coming from the other side of town

  • truth in numbers

    So wait…….des moines firefighters are complaining about not enough staffing but if you look at a department like Ankeny with 55000 served and 33 people staffed (11 per day) that would be the same as des moines having what? 120 firefighters? Maybe they should do what Ankeny does and utilize part time firefighters to reduce staffing cost. After all, that’s what the Des Moines guys do on their day off, they work part time at neighboring fire departments which inhibits growth of that department. Even their union president Hurley does.

  • Fix Brown II

    am i the only person to notice how incorrect the WHO chart is about the number of fire fighters? the top chart say 311 and has 56 red dots and the bottom chart has 285 fire fighters and 40 red dots. 285/311= 91.6%, but 40/56=71.4% that’s a completely misleading chart. way to make things worse than they really are WHO.

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