Eric Lynch, IAFF Local 1596: Lawrence and Douglas County leaders must budget more money for public safety (Column)

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When you’re at home watching TV and you notice a strange odor of smoke, how quickly do you expect your local fire department to be able to respond? Similarly, if you’re cooking dinner and you start to experience chest pain, how long are you willing to wait for an ambulance to arrive at your door? 

These questions were explored in a joint City and County Commission meeting in early May. Fire medical department staff presented recent data identifying the lack of coverage and lengthening response times in parts of the city. Unfortunately, the path we are on paints a bleak picture for the safety of our community. An existence where your local fire truck or ambulance is unavailable to respond in a timely manner is already a reality for some neighborhoods and an imminent future for the rest of us. The presentation urged city and county officials to fund new fire and ambulance stations, not only to increase community safety but to also increase the safety of our first responders. 

More than a decade of increased workload and city/county growth without increased help has left our first responders at their breaking point. In order to put the need for these proposed improvements in perspective, it is necessary to explore our past to determine how we arrived at the present. 

The year is 2006 and your Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical department has responded to nearly 9,000 emergency incidents annually in your community. City growth has created a safety concern; there are parts of town where a fire truck or ambulance cannot respond to your emergency within national standards, and there is a need for more first responders in critical areas of town. Because of this, a brand new fire and ambulance station was just built and more first responders have been hired. Your tax dollars are hard at work. You feel safe knowing your community fire medical department is fully staffed and ready to respond quickly and efficiently to any emergency you may have. 

Fast forward 10 years to 2016. LDCFM has now responded to nearly 12,000 emergency incidents in Lawrence and Douglas County. However, there has been no increase in staffing or fire stations despite the large increase in call volume and workload. Physical and mental exhaustion are beginning to become an issue for your first responders, and injury and illnesses are becoming more frequent. Due to this, there have been more than 24,000 hours of overtime worked, and there have been 107 instances of “forced” mandatory overtime. Consider that most of the time when a Lawrence firefighter is “forced” into overtime, they’re working 36 consecutive hours in a row, and the ability of your first responders to safely respond to your emergency becomes a concern for you and your fellow community members. The safety of your community is beginning to decrease, and response times to emergencies are slowing down. 

Now, fast forward six more years to 2022. The outer limits of the city have expanded further, and the number of emergency incidents your firefighters and paramedics have  responded to has increased to 15,579 annually (a 74% increase from 2006). Still, no additional first responders have been hired and no new stations have been built. 

Because of this, overseeing entities such as the Insurance Services Office (ISO) have started to notice. LDCFM has always prided themselves in holding an ISO Class 1 designation, making them in the top 5% of fire departments in the entire country, but in 2022, they received a lower ISO score in the category of “Deployment,” referencing the department’s ability to respond to an emergency, for the first time. Unfortunately, response times are even slower, safety has continued to decrease, and first responders are burnt out.

The tremendous climb in emergency incidents and overall workload now has your first responders in crisis. An increase in injuries and illnesses has become apparent. Because of this, sick leave hours used have risen to 24,044 hours in 2022 from 17,336 in 2016, an increase of 38.7%, and overtime hours in 2022 rose to 40,530, an increase of 37.1% since 2016. 

Further, there were 32 resignations or retirements from 2020 through 2022, an increase of 77.8% from the prior three-year span. In order to maintain an adequate number of first responders on duty, the department has become reliant on overtime and forcing firefighters and paramedics to remain on shift when they are expecting to go home. 

Instances of forcing first responders into an overtime shift have risen a staggering 655% since 2016 for a total of 808 times in 2022. More than 800 times, a firefighter or paramedic expected to go home after a long, 24-hour, sleep-deprived shift, and was denied that relief. 

According to a report published by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Firefighters and EMS Responders, 2009), when a firefighter or paramedic is overworked and sleep-deprived, they are more susceptible to decreased performance, increasing instances of injury or illness. Additionally, LDCFM carries an agreement with the University of Kansas to staff a majority of their athletic events. These events are staffed solely with overtime, and with the amount of overtime already oversaturated, this means more forced overtime. 

Taking all of this into consideration, we can reasonably conclude that the overarching reasons for the issues and deficiencies mentioned above are due to poor staffing, exhausted firefighters and paramedics, and a community that has outgrown its public safety infrastructure.

In May, the fire chief and department staff presented a plan to the joint commissions to build additional fire stations that will resolve these safety gaps and the negative working conditions of our first responders. If our elected officials do the right thing, there will be budgeted money starting in 2024 specifically to improve the services we all expect and deserve. 

Unfortunately, there is no zero-cost option moving forward; an improvement to city infrastructure such as this and the employees to staff them costs taxpayer money. But what price can we put on public safety? The cost of continuing to do nothing could mean the death of a heart attack victim who could have received lifesaving interventions earlier. It means a home that catches on fire burns to the ground instead of being saved. It means your community first responders are again disregarded instead of supported. 

Your Lawrence-Douglas County firefighters and paramedics are dedicated to their work and providing the very best service available. Every day, they show up and commit their minds and bodies to creating a safe and secure community. As community members, we should all demand that same level of commitment from our elected officials and ensure they fund additional fire and ambulance stations in our community. 

— Eric Lynch is an executive board member of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 1596.

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