Columbia City Council's decision to reduce staffing at two fire stations to save money has reduced the city's ability to meet national standards with response times, according to a study by a group of city firefighters.
The Columbia Firefighters Association said council's decision to take two firetrucks out of service - one at Station 9 on Devine Street and one at Station 8 on Atlas Road - means the city is only able to respond to target="_blank">73 percent of property in the city in under eight minutes. The national standard is 90 percent, according to firefighters and city officials.
"You can't build a city that we can't protect, and at this point, we have a city we can't protect," Anthony Holloway, secretary for the Columbia Firefighters Association, told City Council at its Wednesday night meeting at Carver-Lyon Elementary School.
The changes at the Atlas Road and Devine Street fire stations mean each station has five firefighters on duty instead of eight and one truck in service instead of two.
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That saves the city about $1.2 million a year, Columbia Fire Chief Bradley Anderson said.
Council members cut budgets for all departments as they attempted to make up for years of poor accounting practices for city funds.
"It looks like a valid study," Anderson said of the firefighters' report. "The decision to take engines 8 and 9 out of service was a difficult one and one that was very carefully considered."
Mike King, Columbia's public safety director, pointed out that response times in the area covered by Station 9 actually have decreased 12 seconds since the second firetruck was taken out of service; Response times at Station 8 have increased about 12 seconds.
Citywide, the average response time increased by 12 seconds - to 6 minutes 51 seconds from 6 minutes 39 seconds, he said.
"That speaks to the professionalism and dedication of our firefighters," King said.
Mike Cosola, president of the Columbia Firefighters Association, said taking the firetrucks out of service places a strain on the rest of the system, which has to cover for Stations 8 and 9 when those stations respond to a call.
Cosola said the Insurance Service Office, which rates fire departments on a scale from 1 (great) to 10 (bad), could increase the city's rating because of the staffing changes. That could affect how much Columbia homeowners pay for fire insurance.
The city is gradually moving the second truck at Station 9 back into service full time because of a change in holiday pay for firefighters.
Firefighters work 24-hour shifts, and until this year, they had 24 hours off for each official city holiday. Council members changed that policy in the fall, giving firefighters 12 hours off for each holiday. A firefighter who wanted a full shift off would have to use 12 hours of holiday pay and 12 hours of vacation pay.
That decision added an extra 120 hours of work for each firefighter, which allows the department to occasionally staff the extra firetruck at Station 9. Since Aug. 17, Station 9's second firetruck has been on duty 17 times. The second firetruck at Station 8 has been on duty three times.
King said he expects the department will be able to operate Station 9's second firetruck full time in about six to eight months, once the holiday pay changes have cycled through the department's budget.
But the extra hours of manpower is only enough to staff one firetruck, not two. Anderson said the truck at Station 9 on Devine Street is a higher priority because the station is more centrally located and serves a larger geographic area.
Councilwoman Belinda Gergel, whose district includes the Devine Street fire station, asked city staffers to make restoring the staffing levels at fire stations a priority.
"It's important to look at how quickly we can get these fire engines back in service," she said.