Amid firefighter staffing crunch, Lexington relaxes training schedules

jkegley@herald-leader.comApril 27, 2012 

During a brownout on April 19 at Fire Station No. 12 at Cherrybark and Southland drives, the station's fire truck was out of service as part of the city's effort to cut costs. The practice began in 2009 and is scheduled to end April 1

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The Lexington fire department will try to limit the effect of brownouts by changing training schedules for firefighters, the city said in a news release.

The city is working to have more firefighters available to staff trucks until late summer, when 25 recruits will shore up the department's ranks. The fire department has been operating below normal staffing levels since 40 firefighters retired in January.

State-mandated training and brownouts contributed to two delayed responses by firefighters last week that caused concerns.

On April 18, a man having chest pains stopped for help at a fire station on Shillito Park Road, but no one was there because the fire engine was browned out. An ambulance crew was away undergoing training.

The next day, it took firefighters seven minutes to respond to a house fire on Sheridan Drive because the nearest fire truck, less than a half-mile away, was browned out. The crew on another nearby truck could not respond because it was filling in for an ambulance crew that was in training.

"Right now, between retirements, training requirements, vacation time and a tight budget, it's a big challenge," Commissioner of Public Safety Clay Mason said in a news release from the city.

Mayor Jim Gray has allocated money for two more fire recruit classes in his proposed budget for fiscal year 2013. That budget has not been approved by the Urban County Council. The classes "will take care of us in the long run. But we also need relief in the short-run," Mason said in the release.

The city outlined other steps to limit effects of brownouts.

Fire officials have reduced the recruits' training period by two weeks to expedite their introduction into the ranks, the release said.

Also, limited use of additional overtime is under consideration, Mason said. Before the city effectively eliminated overtime from the fire department's budget, much of the fire department's required in-service training was done on overtime.

The city began "browning out" fire trucks — taking them out of service for several hours or an entire day — in January because of budget and staffing shortages.

"That was adequate until the training schedule intensified," Mason said. Ongoing medical and fire training is required by the state for all firefighters. Meanwhile, firefighters are off work for routine reasons such as vacations and illness.

Mason said he understood the public's concerns with the staffing shortages. "We don't like the situation we're in," he said. "But we can't afford the millions in runaway overtime expenses that characterized our Division of Fire ... in the previous administration."

Interim Fire Chief Keith Jackson said relaxing training standards for a short time "will not compromise care, and it will improve our ability to keep all equipment staffed."

Fire Battalion Chief Ed Davis gave an example of the relaxed training schedules. Training that once took three weeks for all the department's firefighters might be stretched to four weeks, to have fewer people in the classroom at any given time and more firefighters manning trucks and ambulances, he said.

Josh Kegley: (859) 231-3197.Twitter: @HLPublicSafety.

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