By Stuart Hirsch
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. — Calling it a plan to “right size” the department, Fire Chief Phillip Rogers wants to close to two existing fire stations, build a new one near St. Vincent Anderson Regional Hospital, and stabilize the number of firefighters at 111.
Those are some of the significant changes contained in the department’s proposed budget plan for 2014, which was presented to the Anderson City Council during budget workshops recently.
In addition, Rogers wants to buy two new ambulances, hire two civilian employees to handle emergency medical service billing (that work is current being performed by a certified firefighter, he said), and buy a new ladder truck.
Rogers said the proposed staffing levels are consistent with other similarly sized cities in Indiana and elsewhere in the country, and that the plan to shutter Station 1 at 44 W. Fifth St. and build a new, somewhat smaller, yet more environmentally efficient station near St. Vincent Anderson, capitalizes on where Anderson is expected to grow and develop in the future, which is to the southeast and southwest of Interstate 69.
"This plan coincides with the city’s growth,” he said. “We have the opportunity to adjust to that with this budget.”
Overall, the department is proposing a spending plan for fiscal 2014 of just over $10.1 million. Emergency medical services billings are expected to net $1.6 million, and the city will pursue a $1.7 million SAFER (which stands for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant from the federal government to pay for staffing the department at 111 firefighters.
Preliminary estimates for a new 20,000-square-foot fire station are anywhere from $3.5 to $5 million. The oldest firehouse in the city is Station 6 at 133 W. 29th St., which was built in 1946. The newest is Station 4 at 621 W. Cross St., which was built in 1995.
Station 1 was built in 1975, and is in need of significant repairs. Plaster is dropping off the outside of the building, and concrete walls throughout hold moisture, which has led to a mold problem at the facility, Rogers said. In addition, electrical systems, heating, ventilating and air conditioning equipment needs to be replaced, as does the building’s roof. And those fixes would only be stopgap at best, he said.
The better investment, Rogers said, is to take the savings from closing Stations 1, 3, and 6, use money from the department’s building and equipment fund and sell bonds to build the new station.
City Council President David Eicks isn’t convinced that’s the best plan; nor is the Anderson Firefighters Local 1262.
”Building something new is not necessarily the answer,” Eicks said, pointing out that the new police station has been plagued with structural problems and the failure of its heating and air conditioning units. For most of last summer, one of the hottest on record, the air conditioning at the police station wasn’t working at all. Eventually, Eicks said, a maintenance person had to be detailed to the systems virtually full-time to keep it running properly.
"This fire department situation needs to be looked at very carefully,” Eicks said, which is something the council will do as it begins drafting the overall city budget in September.
He wants the Smith administration to convene a nonpartisan blue ribbon commission of business executives to examine all these kinds of issues and make recommendations about what makes the most sense based on sound business principles. “Let them get the facts and guide us,” Eicks said.
"I’m not opposed to building a new fire station, but you need to prove to me how it’s going to save money and how it’s going to make people safer,” he added.
Cody Leever, president of Local 1262, is also critical of the department’s proposed budget. He said union members think the department should maintain the number of stations it has now. Moreover, while members agree that staffing should be stabilized, the “right-size” number isn’t 111 fighters, but 116. That’s the number authorized in the current budget, and it should be maintained in 2014.
He noted, for example, that most fire departments in Indiana that are similar in size to Anderson, such as Kokomo and Lafayette, don’t provide ambulance service, which means they can operate with fewer staff. Ambulance calls here make up about 80 percent of the department’s runs.
The city of Elkhart, which does provide both fire and EMS services, and is staffed with 125 firefighters, Lever added.
“It’s the minimum staffing per day that gets us,” Leever said. “We should be at 116 now, and we want to see a budget next that keeps staffing at that level,” and one that makes sure there are enough fire engines staffed properly to meet the city’s and the firefighters’ safety needs.
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