A dispute over staffing levels erupted between the Dayton, Ohio,
firefighters union and the fire chief following accusations by the union that
budget cuts led to slower response to a fire early Thursday morning.
The fire at 1201 E. Third St. destroyed 11 apartments and more than five businesses. More than 20 people were displaced, but none was injured.
One man was arrested on suspicion of arson.
Firefighters arrived at the fire at 12:08 a.m., about four minutes after the call was received Thursday to find what started as a couch fire in an alley had spread to two apartment/commercial buildings.
Staff reductions in recent years have forced the city to put in place brown outs for engines 2 and 8, which includes the East Third Street fire station, said Fire Chief Herbert Redden III.
The station -- two blocks away from the fire -- was closed because of a staffing decision to avoid overtime, a practice in place because of the budget cuts, according to International Association of Firefighters, Dayton Local 136, officials. The nearest station to respond was 1.2 miles from the scene.
"The more distant response added several key minutes before the first apparatus was on scene and allowed significant time for the fire to grow," said union president Gaye Jordan.
Redden called the union's statement a "scare tactic." According to the department call sheet, four more fire trucks were on scene within five minutes and a recall for all off-duty firefighters followed. Within the first 30 minutes of the first engine arriving there were 16 Dayton units on the scene. Harrison Twp. and Trotwood responded as mutual aid to cover the city as more and more Dayton fire trucks arrived at the scene. By the time the fire was under control shortly after 3 a.m., 24 city fire units were on the scene.
"The response time was acceptable," Redden said. "You can't have enough people at a fire like that."
Some 60 firefighters were called to the scene.
The department is likely to hire new recruits this fall. The Fire Department, like the Police Department, has been unable to hire firefighters over the past four years after the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against the city, claiming its firefighter and police tests discriminated against minorities. Under a consent decree, the city agreed to change its tests. The first police recruits entered the Police Academy in late February. The Fire Department gave written tests earlier this summer and hopes to have its first class of recruits this fall.
In the meantime, Redden was able to hire civilian paramedic/EMTs to man the department's ambulance, shifting firefighter/EMTs from the ambulances to fire suppression. Still with retirements -- some state-mandated -- disability leaves and vacation, the department has had to rely more and more on overtime. Overtime and benefits costs reached almost $1.9 million in 2010. It currently is at nearly $1.3 million this year.
Redden said cutbacks have been offset by relying on neighboring jurisdictions to provide mutual aid when needed.
"People need to realize the times we live in," he said. "You can have five engines on every corner in this city, and someone will complain that a fire station is in the wrong place," Redden said.
Staffing is determined based on need, Redden said.
The fire started on a sofa in an alley way between the buildings and it quickly spread to the nearby structures.
James Donald Hill, 45, was arrested on suspicion of starting the blaze and taken to the Montgomery County Jail. As of Thursday afternoon, investigators had not interviewed Hill. Redden said Hill may have been inebriated when arrested.
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