Wright-Patt fire department aid to local cities could be impacted by sequestration

Wright-Patterson firefighters could end emergency runs to local communities because of reduced manpower if furloughs of civilian base employees hit, a firefighter union leader says.

Mandatory unpaid time off the job would mean a two-person emergency central dispatch would be reduced to one staffer, and firefighters could not support a hazardous materials team at the base, said Roy Colbrunn, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local F-88.

The base has 75 civilian firefighters who answer calls, a reduction of about 25 percent from a few years ago, he said.

Wright-Patterson spokesman Daryl Mayer said while safety will remain a “top priority” civilian worker furloughs “have always been regarded as a last resort because of their adverse effects.”

The base has about 13,000 civilian employees who face anticipated 14-day unpaid furloughs or time off beginning in June because of budget cuts. The Pentagon must reduce spending by $41 billion through the end of September. The firefighters work 48 hours shifts, so the reductions would hit overtime pay, Colbrunn said. The number of Wright-Patterson firefighters on a shift would drop to 14 from about 23 today, he said.

The sprawling base, which has multiple airfields and hundreds of buildings, has three fire stations.

A loss of mutual aid out of Wright-Patterson could stretch resources in neighboring communities, according to local fire chiefs. Last year, the Air Force base’s fire department responded to 1,060 calls on the installation and rolled outside the gates to answer calls off base 131 times, according to base figures.

“Any department that neighbors up to Wright-Patt, it will affect them considerably,” said Huber Heights Fire Chief Mark S. Ashworth. “They’re a great resource for us and that’s not good news.”

If Wright-Patterson firefighters aren’t available, another fire department will be asked to step in, fire chiefs said.

“I think anytime you pull resources from further away that does impact overall safety,” said Fairborn Fire Chief Michael G. Riley.

The Huber Heights Fire Department is among those that have had resources strained in recent years, Ashworth said.

“With all of our resources being strapped, we are relying more and more on our neighbors,” he said. “At some point and time, you just can’t dump all your calls on a neighbor. It’s just not feasible.”

In Riverside, Wright-Patterson firefighters responded to incidents there 38 times last year, mostly to lend a hand with fires and natural gas leaks, said city Fire Chief Mark Carpenter.

“They help us with all aspects of firefighting,” he said.

While an exact figure was not immediately available for Fairborn, Riley estimated Wright-Patterson firefighters responded into his base-bordering city less than 50 times in 2012. In Huber Heights, the number was six, according to Ashworth.

In an email, Mayer said while it may be necessary to reduce the number of base firefighters per shift, emergency dispatchers at a dispatch call center and eliminate mutual aid responses, base leaders hope to find other options, such as drawing on hazardous material crews in nearby communities.

“None of these mitigation efforts are ideal and we are continuing to look for better solutions,” he wrote. “Ultimately, our first preference is they will not be necessary. However, if they are, we will manage the situation to ensure the safety of our personnel and resources is protected at all times.”

Col. Cassie B. Barlow, 88th Air Base Wing commander, does not have authority to exempt entire categories of job classifications from furlough, Mayer said. But she does have the authorization to exempt individual civilian workers on a case-by-case basis if the employee appeals within a week of a 30-day furlough notice, according to Mayer. One criteria is the job must be mission critical to the safety of life or property, Air Force officials have said. Barlow was not immediately available for comment.

Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley said the service branch awaited a decision from the Pentagon on what positions will be exempted. She had no timeline Friday on when that might happen. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Todd Spitler, a Pentagon spokesman, said in an email a Defense Department official had not signed yet the furlough exemption letter.

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