OSWEGO, NY – With several dozen fellow firefighters looking on from the audience, the president of the Oswego Firefighters’ Association made an impassioned plea for the mayor and council to reconsider the proposed cuts to the department in the tentative 2013 city budget.
“I stand before you tonight to respond to the mayor’s 2013 proposed budget on behalf of the men and women of the Oswego Fire Department and the citizens of Oswego under our emergency protection,” John Geraci said at Tuesday night’s council meeting.
Specifically, the association opposed the plan to close the West Side Fire Station and to reduce daily staffing from 12 firefighters down to 10.
“We are here tonight NOT to save our own as the proposed budget contains no layoffs, but to protect our ability to serve the taxpayers of this community the way they deserve and have come to expect,” Geraci stressed. “You see, to a firefighter, the ability to protect the lives and property of the citizens we serve is our fundamental responsibility.”
The proposed budget would drastically decrease the department’s ability to protect the community and “cannot stand down without being sure the people we protect are clear with what is at stake,” he said.
The closure of the West Side Fire Station would be one of the most severe blows to the department’s ability to take care of the city, according to Geraci.
The west side of the city is home to the “higher risk” buildings and businesses, he said.
The Oswego Hospital, the steam station, SUNY Oswego, several senior living facilities, nursing homes, City Hall and the “ever aging downtown section” are all part of this area, he said, adding, “Not to mention, the majority of our population resides there.”
The west side facility has access to the Oswego River; the department’s rescue boat is in close proximity to the station, he pointed out.
The closure would cause a longer response time for units to respond to emergencies on the west side of the city, he added.
“In this business, it is a fact that minutes, if not seconds, make a great difference in the outcome of an emergency. Whether it is a rapidly growing fire or a life-threatening event such as a sudden illness or accident, the department’s ability to put rescuers on the scene in the shortest amount of time possible is perhaps the biggest factor affecting the outcome,” Geraci told the councilors. “If I understand the facts correctly, closing the west side station would save the city approximately $10,000 in utilities, at roughly a dollar a year per household; the risk to reward ratio is clearly out of balance.”
The reduction of daily staffing is “equally alarming,” he said.
“Oswego firefighters respond to a call for help every 96 minutes and often experience simultaneous alarms leaving scarce resources available at our busiest times,” he said. “It is not uncommon to find the firehouses empty while the entire duty crew is out on calls. Any reduction in current staffing will inevitably result in emergency calls which will not get a timely or appropriate resource based response.”
It is the firefighters on duty that enables the department to make quick and aggressive interior attacks on fires and prevent loss of life and property, he explained. It is firefighters on duty that allow the department to mitigate multiple emergencies at the same time, he continued.
“It is the firefighters on duty who make the difference in these outcomes,” he said.
Even under the current staffing, the department often finds itself spread thin and in times when municipalities ask departments to do more with less, the fire department has, the union rep pointed out.
The department’s call volume has steadily increased over the last 10 years from about 3,000 in 2002 to an expected 5,200 by the end of this year, he said.
“With this increased demand, our daily staffing has remained the same. There is not a week that goes by that our department’s administration and union leaders don’t work to find ways to continue to provide the services we do without jeopardizing the safety of the citizens or our firefighters,” Geraci told the council. “I feel we have been successful in the face of that task thus far. However, I am doubtful that we will be able to continue to do so with the proposed cuts before us.”
The firefighters understand the financial hardships the city is facing and will continue to be at the table to find ways to cut costs in these troubling economic times, Geraci pledged.
“We, however, in good conscious cannot work with these cuts that will negatively affect our ability to provide the services that our citizens require,” he added.
In 2007, the city and department found themselves in a similar plight at budget time, Geraci noted.
The council at that time took it upon itself to have a feasibility study of the fire department by an independent firm to allow them to make educated decisions regarding the department and the safety of the community, he said.
It spoke directly to many of the issues that are in front of the city today, he said.
The study validated the need for a timely response and sufficient staffing from the department, he said.
“I would urge you to look at this report or at least make informed decisions based on industry standards and input from the higher ranking officers of this department regarding proposed cuts,” Geraci said. “We hope to find a way to work with city officials to stay within the financial confines of this year’s budget while not jeopardizing the safety of the citizens we serve.”