Understaffing at the Ashland Fire Department leaves firefighters overworked and overstressed, and the problem appears likely to get worse with a coming wave of retirements, according to the department’s union president.
The number of firefighters on duty for each of three 24-hour shifts would be 16, 16 and 15 at city authorized levels, said Carl Stambaugh, president of International Association of Firefighters Local 706.
That falls short of the 18 per shift recommended by the National Fire Protection Association based on the number of trucks the department has, he said.
However, because of retirements, promotions, injuries and a firing, the average number per shift currently is even lower — 13 firefighters, the minimum staffing level.
The Ashland department has four trucks and a tower truck; each of the four trucks requiring three firefighters in order to roll. The tower truck can go with one firefighter.
With only 13 firefighters on duty, one truck can’t answer calls — “browned out,” in firefighter jargon.
That leads to potential problems in the event of simultaneous calls, Stambaugh said. For example, if a fire and an auto crash were reported at the same time, the department might not be able to respond adequately to both.
Just under 14 percent of calls in Ashland are simultaneous, he said. Practically speaking, the issue hasn’t caused any serious problems, he said. “We had a couple of calls that stretched us to the max,” he said.
Brownouts occur about 217 days per year, he said.
There are ways to compensate during brownout incidents, including calling off-duty firefighters in or calling other departments for mutual aid.
However, calling out off-duty firefighters brings its own set of problems, according to Stambaugh. For one, it adds to the response time, because it takes an average of 15 minutes to get to the station and five more minutes to be ready to respond.
When staffing falls below 13 in a shift, off-duty firefighters are subject to working additional shifts. With each shift being 24 hours, that means the called-back firefighter works 48 hours at a stretch.
Firefighters don’t always work continuously for that length of time and ideally have time to sleep, but some shifts are busier than others, and it is not unknown for crews to battle fires and do paperwork clear through a double shift, he said.
The required overtime typically is popular in early stages because it brings in additional income, but over time it becomes burdensome on the individual firefighter and a source of friction among the force, Stambaugh said. “It’s getting harder to get people to come in voluntarily so the (newest) guy is forced out.”
The city is looking to hire three firefighters, but that won’t be enough to replace an expected wave of retirements, Stambaugh said.
That is not enough because there could be up to seven more departures in the next year, all of them highly experienced long-timers.
The hiring process takes up to nine months, and then it takes two to four more months to certify each new hire. Before they are certified firefighters can fight fires but don’t count toward the minimum manning per truck, so don’t immediately alleviate the brownout problem.
To shorten the process once the retirements kick in, the city should be proactive, hiring additional firefighters as early as possible and get them in training, he said.
City manager Steve Corbitt said upcoming hiring will fill “all authorized vacancies” and that qualified applicants who aren’t hired will go in a pool to fill future vacancies, which should shorten the process when that happens.
However, there is no money in the city budget to hire firefighters over the authorized number, he said.
He said Ashland has more firefighters per capita than it did a generation ago and more than several other Kentucky cities its size.
The city’s fire insurance rating is safe, with Ashland’s fire safety rated in the top 2 percent of cities in the U.S., he said.
The rating is done once a decade, and Ashland’s was bumped up a step during the last one, he said.
However, Stambaugh said the rating would suffer if the ratings institution were to return for another study now because of the understaffing.
Between 11 p.m. and 9 a.m. the department averages one call per day, Corbitt said, which indicates the manning is adequate. He called the brownout situation acceptable. He said the department was able to put close to 50 firefighters on the scene at two recent major fires. “It’s very acceptable to me. I have no concerns about the capabilities of the fire department.”
MIKE JAMES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or