Potential Cuts Have Fire Union Worried

WHEELING – When it comes to fighting a fire, every minute counts, which is why staffing levels need to remain as they are, according to Wheeling fire officials.

International Association of Fire Fighters Local 12 spokesman Dave Harmon held a press conference Thursday at Heritage Port to warn residents against possible cuts to the Wheeling Fire Department. Members of Local 12 believe City Manager Robert Herron plans to propose cuts involving reducing the number of firefighters and paramedics in the department.

Herron, during a noon Monday meeting, is expected to offer Wheeling City Council potential money-saving measures for the city, which is anticipated to end fiscal year 2012-13 with a $255,000 cash carryover. Earlier this year, City Council voted to delay planned B&O tax reductions, fearing that low early collections from the city’s new sales tax could lead to a budget shortfall if the B&O relief took effect in April as scheduled. That led Mayor Andy McKenzie to direct Herron to complete a comprehensive review of city operations and come back with suggestions on how to cut costs and provide some type of B&O reduction.

Harmon said department cuts would be detrimental to the city, as the number of calls for service continue to increase. While the city’s population continues to decline, geographically the city remains the same. Harmon said staffing levels are already too low, according to National Fire Protection Association standards. The NFPA recommends four firefighters per engine, while Wheeling has two men per engine except for Engine 2, which has three firefighters.

“We haven’t been told what they’re cutting or who – we’ve been told public safety forces,” Harmon said. “We were told that in the budget meetings before that the finances were there, that money for next year’s budget was approved and all the staffing we have now.”

If personnel cuts came in the form of attrition or outright, Harmon said it would increase response times by three-to-four minutes. Every minute, the size of a fire doubles, Harmon said.

“We’re trying to get the word out to the citizens,” he said. “If we have a major incident in Wheeling we are staffed adequately – we can handle one major incident. If we have anything else going on during that major incident … our resources are stretched very thin now to cover the rest of the city. During a basic structure fire, you may have six men left to cover the rest of the city of Wheeling while the initial response of that structure fire is going on.”

Harmon said cuts could also impact home owner’s insurance rates. He encouraged residents to call their members of council and tell them not to make public safety cuts.

In 2013, the department responded to 153 fires and 4,133 medical calls. The department has seven stations: South, Center and North Wheeling; Wheeling Island; Elm Grove; Woodsdale; and Warwood. The department has six engines, one ladder truck, a rescue company and three ambulances.

In 2009, Herron proposed closing the South Wheeling fire station as a cost-saving measure. After Councilman Robert “Herk” Henry and then-councilman Vernon Seals disapproved of the measure, the idea was nixed and repairs to the station were made instead and an ambulance was added to that station.

Harmon said in 2008, three positions were lost via attrition.