Firefighter’s union warns against potential staff cuts

Richmond firefighters teaming with Red Cross to install free smoke alarm systems
A Richmond Fire Department truck. (Photo credit: Mike Kinney)

By Mike Kinney

The union representing Richmond firefighters is protesting proposed cuts to its staffing, saying they would endanger city residents.

The City of Richmond declared a fiscal emergency on July 28 due to a structural budget deficit worsened by a reduction in tax revenue amid the COVID-19 pandemic. By declaring a fiscal emergency, the city was able to reopen its contract with International Association of Firefighters Local 188 to discuss reductions in staffing levels that would assist with balancing the FY2020/21 budget.

Fire union President Luis Padilla says the city aims to eliminate the Richmond Fire Department’s only fully-staffed fire truck, Truck 64, and use staffing from the truck crew to fill overtime vacancies.

The RFD has one other fire truck at Station 68 in Hilltop, but it’s known as a “flex truck.”

“That station has only one crew so depending on the nature and location of the call, the crew hops on either the engine or the truck,” Padilla said. “Having a flex truck is problematic if the crew is at another emergency when a fire happens. This will cause delays and put the residents in danger.”

Fire engines carry a hose, up to 600 gallons of water and a pump to supply the water, while fire trucks have an aerial ladder, rescue saws, ground ladders and various tools. In Richmond, there are eight companies on duty every day, including seven engine companies and one truck company for a total of 24 firefighters. The city’s proposal would reduce on-duty staffing to 21 firefighters, Padilla said.

“The typical response for a working structure fire is 4 engines, 1 truck, and 1 battalion chief,” he said. “That’s five out of the eight total companies responding to a single alarm. This will leave the remaining 3 companies to cover the entire city. With the elimination of truck 64, that would not only cause a delay in the response, but leave only two companies to cover the city.”

Padilla added, “Public safety should never be taken lightly. The last time the city decided that a fully staffed truck was not essential, three children and a grandmother lost their lives.”

Calls for comment from the city were not returned as of presstime.

In a report, city staff said Richmond has suffered from a structurally imbalanced budget for a number of years. It has managed to balance the budget with one-time solutions without making structural changes. But COVID-19 pandemic shelter-in-place orders that shut down businesses worsened the situation to the point of fiscal emergency, requiring reductions in departments citywide, the city said.

The city’s general fund saw a roughly $5 million drop in sales tax revenue from restaurants, wineries, bars, eateries and shopping receipts, along with decreases in the hotel tax, according to the city. The full impacts from COVID-19 aren’t yet fully known, but city staff is projecting a loss of about $10 million in general fund revenue.

The fire union is calling on the city to use its budget reserves and federal CARES Act funding to resolve its deficit rather than target public safety.