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Newberry rejects request, then places firefighters on standby to go to Haiti

After first rejecting a FEMA request on Wednesday to make a team of Lexington firefighters available to go to Haiti on a rescue mission because of city budget constraints, Mayor Jim Newberry placed nine firefighters on standby Thursday to go to the devastated country if needed.

The mayor's office says the initial request was rejected because he was concerned about having enough firefighters working to avoid having brownouts — the temporary closings of fire stations. But the president of the firefighter's union says the mayor made the nine available "after pressure from our people."

Lexington Division of Fire was first contacted Wednesday by the Ohio Task Force One, a regional FEMA resource based outside of Dayton. Newberry declined because of budget constraints and staffing, said Susan Straub, spokeswoman for Newberry.

That trip would have required overtime and, earlier this month, Newberry ordered the fire department to cut $800,000 from its overtime budget because of a $12.5 million budget shortfall.

Straub said the salary of firefighters sent to Haiti would be paid by the federal government, but the feds would only reimburse the city 70 percent for overtime incurred while trying to fill positions here.

Shortly before 6 a.m. Thursday, Fire Chief Robert Hendricks received a personal call at home asking if Lexington could send two hazardous materials technicians to Haiti. While Hendricks was on the telephone seeking permission from Public Safety Commissioner Tim Bennett, he received a call from Evan Schumann, executive director of the Ohio Force, saying the commitment had been filled and they no longer needed Lexington's help.

But mid-afternoon Thursday, Newberry authorized nine firefighters, specially trained to be part of Ohio Task Force One, to be on standby if another request came in.

Straub said he changed his mind because the first wave of people went to Haiti Thursday morning. The second wave is now closer to Monday when 24 new fire recruits will graduate and be put to work. That gives them the flexibility they need to avoid paying overtime, Straub said.

Hendricks agreed.

"That's eight people per shift," he said. "By Monday we will be in a much better position to have people deployed.

Chris Bartley, president of Lexington Professional Firefighters Local 526, said he was glad Newberry has authorized nine firefighters to help in the disaster area, but his members were disappointed that they were not allowed to be among the first responders sent to the devastated island. The nine have received specialized training about once a month in Dayton, he said. The task force is one of 28 search and rescue teams across the country sponsored by FEMA that are trained to work in a variety of rescue operations.

If the nine firefighters are called up, Bartley said, they probably will not go to Haiti but do support work in the United States.

"We should have been part of the first wave under a memorandum of understanding the city has with FEMA," he said. "It's like a mutual aid agreement," where in exchange for having firefighters trained, the city agrees to make them available upon request, Bartley said.

Bartley disputes that the federal government will only reimburse the city 70 percent. He said "it's complicated" but FEMA will reimburse in two installments. He said the city would be reimbursed before any overtime paid to any firefighters sent to Haiti.

Bartley said the mayor made the nine available "after pressure from our people."

When firefighters learned the mayor had turned down the FEMA request, two went to Dayton, on their own, to help load transport planes with food and medical supplies headed to the stricken island.

Lexington has been placed on alert by the National Disaster Medical System that earthquake victims may be flown to Lexington, at which time emergency medical personnel would disperse them to hospitals throughout the region for care.