DeKalb Fire Department braces for staffing cuts during budget season

DeKalb Fire Dept.bracing for cuts

DeKALB – Since 1985, the city’s fire department staffing numbers have increased by three firefighters, while call load has more than doubled, which concerns DeKalb Fire Chief Eric Hicks as potential staff cuts loom for the city’s fiscal 2019 budget.

The fire department is under pressure from the city to cut organization costs to alleviate a $1.6 million budget deficit. The department stands to lose one firefighter and the deputy chief of operations position, which could be eliminated through attrition.

In 1985, the city had only two fire stations, a minimum of 10 firefighters on duty and three administrative chiefs. By 1990, unchanged staffing levels responded to 2,620 requests for service. By 2005, the number of calls jumped to 4,109, adding a minimum daily staff of 13 firefighters, according to the department’s 2017 annual report.

Staffing levels peaked in 2008, with 4,977 calls for service and a minimum of 14 firefighters between three stations. The city faced big budget cuts in 2008 and 2009 because of the recession, Hicks said.

“We offer a lot more services than we used to,” Hicks said.

The 2017 fire department service level review shows 5,573 calls for service, with a minimum of 13 firefighters on duty. Firefighters are on a 24-hour-day on, two-days-off schedule. Fire Station No. 1, 700 Pine St., staffs each shift with five firefighters, while stations No. 2, 1154 S. Seventh St., and No. 3, 950 W. Dresser Road, staff four firefighters a shift.

Added services include a technical rescue team, a hazardous materials team in partnership with the Sycamore Fire Department and an airport rescue firefighting team. Current socioeconomic conditions in relation to access to health care have caused a spike in emergency medical service calls, Hicks said. Substantial changes also have been made to the active shooter program since the 2008 shooting on Northern Illinois University's campus, which claimed five lives.

Hicks said the 2018 call volume already is up from 2017 levels, and he expects to end the year with more than 6,000 calls for service, the highest the department has seen. The department continues to operate at a minimum of 13 firefighters a shift, although a recent staff resignation has called for overtime, Hicks said.

The only salaried members of the staff are Hicks; Deputy Chief of Operations Jeff McMaster; and Deputy Chief of Training Jim Zarek. All three positions operate in a primarily administrative capacity and do not receive overtime pay. They are expected, however, to be on call 24/7, unlike firefighters who receive overtime pay only if they return to duty for a shift recall, which happens on a need-to-fill basis dependent on response calls and emergency needs.

“No matter what happens [with the budget], we will continue to supply the people,” Hicks said. “But when you’re already at the bare minimum staffing, you have to go into overtime.”

Hicks previously has said that if the department was staffed efficiently, overtime costs would be reduced.

Nearly all – 96 percent – of the fire department’s budget goes to personnel costs: wages, insurance, overtime, pension and other contractual obligations. The fiscal 2018 personnel budget was more than $10 million. The 2017 nonpersonnel budget – for vehicle maintenance, building and grounds, public education, administrative costs such as gasoline for the fleet, electricity and office supplies – was $353,812. Right now, the department needs to repair a broken ladder truck, which will cost $20,000, Hicks said.

McMaster, who has been with the department for 23 years, said the work still is there, even if cuts must be made.

“You have to look at all sides of it, where you can make cuts, where you can save money,” he said. “On the other hand, there are so many nuts and bolts, you need someone in operations to make sure staffing, facilities and vehicles are all moving smoothly.”

Hicks said he knows the city has talked about "boots on the ground" versus administration, but said "you have to remember you have an
$11.5 million operation, you need some administration to run that, and even a minor reduction in staff is an issue."

Recent informal budget talks suggest the deputy chief of operations position will be cut, but the suggested firefighter cut and authorized overtime will be denied.