Ladder Co. Closest To Fatal Buffalo Fire, Was Closed Under New Labor Agreement

10:39 PM, Jul 9, 2013   |    comments
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Family members of baby killed in fire console each other

BUFFALO, NY - In the wake of a change that took effect July 1, regarding staffing for Buffalo Firefighters, some wonder whether the new protocols could -in certain circumstances -leave both citizens and firefighters vulnerable.

Fire Commissioner Garnell Whitfield insists that would not be the case, and that it had no impact on the outcome of a tragic fire in Riverside early Tuesday morning, which claimed the life of an infant.

"The first arriving company was here within three minutes," Whitfield told WGRZ-TV.

The company was Engine 26, located just a few blocks, or three tenths of a mile from where the fire occurred on Riverside Avenue.

Customarily, though, while engines run hoses and quell flames, it is ladder companies that conduct search and rescues.

The closest one in this case, Ladder 13, was less than a mile away on Hertel Avenue.

However, it did not respond,

It was shut down due to a clause in the recently signed collective bargaining agreement with the firefighters union, which allows the city to take any unit out of service, if --due to sick calls--there are not enough personnel citywide to keep all units open on any given shift.

"We feel it's safe, we feel it was negotiated with Dan Cunningham, the union president and the firefighters union and the city, it is in the new contract," Mayor Byron Brown said. 

 

The clause, called Dynamic Staffing, can be exercised whenever there are 5 firefighters who call in sick, out of the 120 on duty throughout the city on a typical shift.

Shutting one unit down, and then shuffling its remaining on-duty members to other units which are also missing personnel, allows the city to decrease the need to call in off duty firefighters, and thus save a considerable amount of overtime.

Dan Cunningham, President of the Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association, the union representing city firefighters calls the practice "Russian Roulette."

 

On Tuesday morning, other ladder companies covering for the shuttered Ladder 13, had be summoned, from other parts of the city, and in some cases from several miles away.

"So instead of a unit coming from one mile, you might have one coming from 3.9 miles," said Cunningham.

"Whether you go 100 miles an hour or you go ten miles an hour, it's a longer distance. It's going to take you longer to get there, Cunningham said.

"That ladder company (13) being shut down last night had nothing to do with the events of last night," insisted Whitfield.

For one thing, he says in this case, there was no rescue to effect. "These people had self evacuated prior to the first arriving engine company being here," Whitfield told Two On Your Side.

"It does not compromise fire protection in the city, the city would not have done it if that was the case and we're sure the firefighters wouldn't have negotiated it if that was the case," Brown said. 

 

Moreover, even if there was someone inside the burning home, it's not like the engine company would wait for a ladder company to arrive to attempt to save them.

"Our people do what they have to do when they get here," said Whitfield. "Just because your assigned to a ladder or to an engine or to whatever, if you're responding and if you're wearing this uniform, you're going in and trying to get those people out."

Cunningham and Whitfield both said that in this case, because they did not know everyone was out, Engine 26 personnel did in fact go in.
Nevertheless, Cunningham also notes the engine personnel, while well trained, may not have been as well suited for a search and rescue operation as their colleagues in the ladder company that had yet to arrive.

In any case, according to Cunningham, they entered bereft of a unit trying to put out the fire, which indeed would have been their role, under normal circumstances.

"So they ventured into the building against all rules, regulations, and recommendations to see if there was anyone in there, and after then, they started putting water on the fire," he said.

"We do a very good job responding to emergencies within the city, well within the prescribed times," said Whitfield, while stating that he could "absolutely" ensure the people of Buffalo that they are safe amid the new staffing provisions in the new labor contract.

Whitfield also said that in fact, one most days, one unit of the Buffalo Fire Department is out of service,...whether due to training, equipment malfunctions, or because firefighters are being shuffled to cover for others under the new labor agreement.

While conceding it is not the ideal situation, Cunningham is the first to admit he agreed to it. However, he insists he did so to break a decade old impasse, and finally bring about a new contract.

At the same time, though, he is also somewhat chagrined that the city seems to have exercised its option on nearly every day since the contract went into effect.

"There's nothing in the contract that says they have to do this. It's an option. But they also have the option to pay overtime to meet staffing needs. The city is not broke," he said.

Click on the video player to watch ours story from 2 On Your Side Reporter Dave McKinley and Photojournalist Bill Boyer. Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveMcKinley2

WGRZ-TV, wgrz.com

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