‘We’re just so far behind’: Birmingham firefighter’s union concerned about staffing shortages

Local News

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — Birmingham Fire and Rescue Service crews are consolidating resources to overcome staffing shortages due to COVID-19, call outs, and FMLA.

Fire departments across the country are struggling to recruit and retain crew members.

BFRS Administrators said all fire trucks are back in service after some were temporarily taken out over the weekend.

“Just like any other organization, we have been hit with staffing issues. We are addressing those issues,” said Battalion Chief Sebastian Carrillo.

Concerns were raised over the weekend after the area firefighter’s union announced that several engines and trucks were “browned out.”

“That’s the inability, due to staffing, to staff a specific station or an apparatus. We have not shut down any specific stations entirely. We are shutting down individual units at those stations,” said Stephen Cook, the President for the Birmingham Firefighter’s Association IAFF Local 117.

Cook said the brownouts have been occurring more frequently during weekends. He said impacted units are often in busy coverage areas.

“They may have some of the most calls in the city and now you are having to rely on another company to back backfill that as well as cover their own territory,” said Cook.

Shortly after the union announced the weekend brownouts, BFRS administrators later emailed news departments to report that engines were back in service.

Despite the shortages, BFRS administrators said there has not been any impact to emergency services.

“There have been instances where we have had to temporarily close a station. That is done very strategically, even when we do close that station, we adjust our response territories to ensure we have no lack in coverage,” said Carrillo.

Cook said it was illogical to claim that services won’t be delayed, particularly for fire events, when fire trucks are not available in the neighborhoods to which they are assigned.

According to BFRS, there are overlaps in coverage areas so neighbors are protected when an engine is out of service.

Carrillo explained the policy is in place in the event that one vehicle is on another call.

“All of our response territory is based on a circle grid, not a square grid, and by doing that each one of those territories overlap so you have very limited area where this is zero coverage at,” said Carrillo.

Other area departments sign agreements to provide mutual aid in certain areas to ensure protection.

Union leaders believe the city needs to offer more incentives. Cook said prospective firefighters often go to other cities where they are paid a higher starting salary and may respond to fewer calls, citing the city of Tuscaloosa as an example.

“They start out about 20% higher than Birmingham does and they run 25% of the calls. They put themselves at risk at a number 25% percent of what we do,” said Cook.

BFRS leaders said they did not have data to support the union claims, but added that other area departments may have fewer expenses.

“We’ve got 32 fire stations. So our operating budget, we have to be more creative,” said Carrillo.

In an effort to attract more firefighters, Carrillo said the city is trying to reach applicants on different platforms.

“We’re doing recruiting on Facebook and Twitter,” said Carrillo.

Currently, BFRS has two recruiting classes with about 50 members. It can take about six months until they are able to work in the field.

Still, Cook believes more firefighters are needed to fill the gaps.

“We have 32 fire stations, so we can’t even put one person on every shift at every station when this recruit school comes out. It takes 96 people to just put one person at every fire station,” said Cook.

BFRS has partnered with Birmingham City Schools to offer a public safety academy for students interested in pursuing a career in the fire service.

The classes are available to students at Huffman and Parker High Schools. Carrillo hopes to see the program expanded to all BCS schools in the future.

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