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Fire department's crisis goes far beyond a staff shortage: 'Our need is critical'

Cincinnati Fire Department training
Cincinnati Fire Department Training Center
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The most recent recruit class at the Cincinnati Fire Department Training Center in September, 2021. The class graduated in November.

The financial crisis in the Cincinnati Fire Department goes beyond the staffing shortage, according to city officials. Chief Michael Washington and Assistant Chief Thomas Lakamp briefed council members at the first meeting of the Public Safety and Governance Committee Tuesday.

Lakamp says an average 35 firefighters leave the department each year, and at least 200 officers are eligible to retire whenever they want.

"And honestly, I think our current environment that we're living in right now is really hastening that," he said. "With all the restrictions with COVID, the testing, the other things that the firefighters are faced with, guys are saying, 'Hey, you know what? I can live on my retirement' and they're walking out the door."

The staff shortage long predates the pandemic, but COVID-19 has exacerbated the issue. An emergency declaration in late December allowed Chief Washington to institute mandatory overtime if necessary.

Lakamp says that hasn't happened yet. "Our firefighters have stepped up as they always have and met the need."

A recruit class of 40 costs the department about $7.5 million over two years. Lakamp says they're currently spending twice that amount in overtime, with the $6.2 million budget for overtime exhausted just six months into the current fiscal year.

The next recruit class is scheduled to begin training in March. Council is likely to approve funding for another class in 2022; that decision will be part of the budget process for fiscal year 2023, which council will finalize at the end of June.

Washington says the crisis isn't limited to staff. Some vehicles in the fleet are more than 20 years old, with more than 200,000 miles.

"We've even cut back and reduced our responses to try to save some of these vehicles," Washington said. "It's one of those things that keep you up at night because in order to get a pumper, it's 13 to 16 months from the time you sign the contract. A ladder truck is two years to get one. And [we] hope to God we don't have a major collision, or catastrophic engine or transmission failure."

Some of the buildings are critically out-of-date, as well. Washington says at one point, they were supposed to get a new fire house every three years — but the most recent one was about 12 years ago.

"Engine 2 is making 4,000-plus runs a year, and comes back to a firehouse that had to be reinforced," Lakamp said. "Hundreds of thousands of dollars we put in to reinforce the apparatus floor because it was designed for horses. I know it sounds like we're dumping. I realize that. But our need is critical in the department. It is critical."

The Public Safety and Governance Committee passed a motion Tuesday asking the administration to report on the fleet needs of the fire department, including the estimated cost and proposed funding sources.