'Brownouts' delay response to blaze on Sheridan Drive

jkegley@herald-leader.comApril 19, 2012 

A fire on Sheridan Drive on Thursday burned unchecked for several minutes, destroying a family's kitchen, because the nearest fire engine had temporarily been taken out of service.

It took seven minutes for firefighters from Station 20, about 2½ miles away, to get to the scene, officials said. Station 12, which is less than a half-mile away, was unoccupied due to a "brownout."

The delayed response was the second incident in two days that drew attention to the practice of brownouts, periods when the city takes fire engines out of service for hours or days to save money.

On Wednesday night, a 65-year-old man having severe chest pains stopped at a fire station in South Lexington for help, only to find that no one was there, fire officials have said.

Brownouts have become a source of contention between Lexington's city government and its fire department. The city began browning out trucks this year to deal with shortages of staffing and money, drawing criticism from the union that represents the majority of firefighters. The union made more than $5 million in concessions during collective bargaining negotiations last year.

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Brownouts "are a major safety issue," said Chris Bartley, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 526. "It was an example of what these brownouts can do. You're going to have a delayed ... response sometimes."

Officials from Mayor Jim Gray's office said they were concerned with the situation, but that budget shortfalls necessitated it.

"We don't like this situation, and we're taking steps to resolve it," city spokeswoman Susan Straub said.

Public Safety Commissioner Clay Mason said the city is nearing a hiring date for new firefighters to eliminate staffing shortfalls caused when 40 of the city's 520 firefighters retired in January.

Union officials said many of those retirees chose to leave after the city drastically raised insurance rates for city employees, just weeks after firefighters agreed to wage freezes, reductions in health care contributions and reductions in vacation time during collective bargaining. Overtime pay was virtually eliminated.

Mason said he hopes a new training class will be hired in May. Twenty-six people have been given conditional job offers, though an 18-week training session means they will not have boots on the line until fall at the earliest.

There were no injuries reported at the fire on Sheridan Drive on Thursday. The fire was contained to the kitchen, though much of the rest of the house was damaged by smoke, Assistant Fire Chief Mike Gribbin said.

Still, the delayed response left residents confused or angry. Responses from Station 12, which is just around the block, typically take less than two minutes.

"We need our lifesavers on duty all the time. All the time," said Theresa Mims, who lives next door to the house that burned. "They're going to wait until a third incident happens and it costs lives."

The city first began browning out fire stations under the administration of former Mayor Jim Newberry. Recently, only individual trucks have been browned out, so there is usually staff on hand at fire stations that house multiple trucks and ambulances.

However, if a fire truck is browned out and an ambulance crew is in training or on a medical run, that leaves a station vacant.

During Thursday's fire, while Station 12 was browned out, the next-closest fire station, Station 11 on Harrodsburg Road, also was closed. The fire crew there was filling in for an ambulance crew that was doing state-mandated paramedic training.

Similarly, firefighters at Station 15 on Shillito Park Road were gone during a brownout Wednesday night when the 65-year-old man showed up with chest pains. An ambulance crew that would normally have been there was out for training.

It took eight minutes for an ambulance from another station to arrive at Station 15 to take the man to the hospital, officials said.

Ed Davis, spokesman for the Lexington fire department, said firefighters typically try to keep response times for fire trucks and ambulances at four minutes or less, in line with standards set by the National Fire Protection Association. Residents in cities with low response times for fires may see increases in the cost of homeowners insurance, he said.

"Every minute that a fire burns, it doubles in size," he said.

City officials said two recruit classes of about 25 firefighters each are tentatively budgeted for fiscal year 2013, in addition to the class expected to start in May.

Staff writer Jennifer Hewlett contributed to this story. Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197. Twitter: @HLPublicSafety.

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