D.C. fire chief proposes big staffing cuts, 12-hour shifts

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Local,DC,Liz Farmer

D.C.'s fire chief wants to slash the city's number of firefighters by nearly 30 percent, a move he says could end up saving millions of dollars but surely will meet heavy union resistance.

Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe on Wednesday outlined to city lawmakers his plan to whittle down the Fire and Emergency Medical Services personnel to 1,600 through attrition in the coming years, a loss of 600 firefighters. The current total is 2,200.

The attrition rate today is roughly seven people per month, meaning it would take more than seven years to lose 600 people. However Ellerbe is also proposing to change to 12-hour shifts instead of 24-hour shifts, which is expected to speed up the departures, according to FEMS.

A look at other cities
CityPopulationFire/EMS total
Washington601,7232,200
Memphis646,8891,483
San Francisco805,2351,390
Detroit713,7771,141*
Ft. Worth741,206898
*doesn't include EMS
Source: U.S. Census, city fire departments

Deputy Mayor for Public Safety Paul Quander added that 40 percent of the city's firefighters live more than 30 miles outside of the District -- some as far as Pennsylvania and New Jersey -- which he and Mayor Vincent Gray say poses a threat to the city.

"There are homeland security issues in case you need to pull people quickly to D.C.," Quander said.

Under the proposed system, firefighters would have to come to work 22 days per month instead of the current eight days, excluding overtime shifts, said Ellerbe. Meanwhile a cadet class of 34 firefighters that started training in November is made up of entirely D.C. residents. Currently, a quarter of the city's fire and EMS personnel live in the District.

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  • "We're certainly not trying to push people out at this stage," said Gray, who met with Ellerbe about the proposal earlier this month. "[It's about] looking down the road."

    But Ed Smith, firefighters union president, said the plan conflicts with Gray's public safety campaign pledge to improve EMS services.

    "This will totally destroy morale," he said. "Paramedics are already leaving at an alarming rate."

    Ellerbe added the personnel cut would "not decrease service one bit." He said the smaller force, combined with the scheduling change, would eliminate the need for overtime pay and save the city up to $36 million. Many cities similar in population to D.C. have fewer firefighters.

    However, according to Judiciary Committee Chairman Phil Mendelson, the cost savings is not tied to any specific time period and is a total estimate of the savings with a smaller work force.

    Smith called the figure "bogus," noting it didn't take into account the pay increase firefighters would ask for as compensation for increased hours and other potential costs.

    A new shift schedule would have to be bargained with the union.

    lfarmer@washingtonexaminer.com

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