Politics & Government

August 11, 2014

Sedgwick County firefighters ask commissioners to fill open positions for safety

The proposed Sedgwick County Fire District 1 budget for next year is $17,627,925. That includes keeping six firefighter positions open to save about $420,000.

Sedgwick County should fill six open firefighter positions for safety and for better service to the community, Fire District 1 firefighters told commissioners Monday at an emotional final public hearing for next year’s budget.

The proposed budget for Fire District 1 next year is $17,627,925, which includes keeping six positions open for a savings of about $420,000. The district has 146 employees, including 73 firefighters.

“Our mission needs to be a success, not a failure,” said Jesse Boring, who has been a Fire District 1 firefighter for four years. “I cannot look a firefighter’s loved ones in the eyes and tell them an injury could have been prevented if we’d only had one more person there.”

Boring said that the fire district’s mission is to serve the public safely but that can only be done if it maintains a well-trained workforce that follows safety procedures. One safety procedure firefighters – and Commissioner Jim Skelton – have stressed is the “two in, two out” practice in which a firefighter never enters a burning building alone and there are always two firefighters left on the outside in case someone inside needs rescued.

That’s not possible on all shifts at all stations, said Lt. Dave Thompson, president of the Sedgwick County Firefighters Union.

At Station 31 in Andale and Station 39 in Garden Plain, “we can’t send two people in at all because one person has to stay with the truck to pump the water into the fire,” Thompson said.

Thompson said he worries that a firefighter who knows people are inside a burning building will risk going in alone.

“You put your life at risk for a life that can be saved,” he said. “You put your life at risk for property that can be saved.”

Stations 32 through 37 have five people per shift assigned to them, Thompson said. Those stations are in Park City, Maize, Haysville, Goddard, south Wichita and Bel Aire.

Firefighter Brent Setchell said he knew “times are tough on the budget.” He urged the county apply for a federal grant that provides funds to hire personnel at departments where tight finances have led to cuts.

Fire Chief Tavis Leake said later in the meeting that the district had applied before for the grant but didn’t receive it. Leake also said that if the district received more money for personnel, it would put them at Stations 31 and 39 but still wouldn’t meet the two-in, two-out guidelines.

The most emotional testimony came from Nancy Peters, who is married to a fire captain and is the mother of two children training to be firefighters.

“Every day my husband leaves in the morning, I say a prayer … for him,” she said.

She helped fight wildfires in Colorado this past summer, she said.

Firefighters, she said, “didn’t take this job to die. They take these jobs to serve the community, to serve the citizens.”

Maybe it’s time to ask taxpayers to pay more, Peters said. The county’s proposed budget for next year, including the fire district’s, does not raise the mill levy.

“I wish you guys would do better because I know you can,” Peters told commissioners.

Commission Chairman Dave Unruh told the room of firefighters that commissioners respected and appreciated their service.

“We know that you are at risk personally … and provide an essential service to our community,” Unruh said.

Skelton, who is in his last term, is pushing to fill the empty positions.

“I think they deserve to give them the staffing they need. A fully staffed fire department does protect the public better,” Skelton said. “It increases the response times and it protects them. I think we need boots on the ground here.”

Commissioners will vote on next year’s budget at their meeting Wednesday. It starts at 9 a.m. in the commission meeting room on the third floor of the courthouse, 525 N. Main.

Reach Deb Gruver at 316-268-6400 or dgruver@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @SGCountyDeb.

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