Tight budget forces Columbia fire department to shuffle firefighters

Monday, August 31, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — The tight budget for fiscal 2010 will force the Columbia Fire Department to occasionally shift workers from Fire Station No. 2 to Fire Station No. 9, which is being built at 210 Blue Ridge Road.

The engine company of Station No. 2 on West Worley Street will be shut down when 35 or fewer firefighters are on duty, and staff will be transferred to Station No. 9. The ladder company will remain available at Station No. 2 when this happens, according to Fire Chief Bill Markgraf’s presentation at last Monday's Columbia City Council budget work session.

The personnel shuffle is one way to make up for a limited budget that has the department leaving four vacant firefighter positions unfilled, Markgraf said.

As previously reported in the Missourian, Fire Station No. 9 is being built in north-central Columbia to improve response times in an area with a quickly growing population, Fire Department spokesman and Battalion Chief Steven Sapp said.

Markgraf told the council that Station No. 2 was chosen to help staff Station No. 9, despite the fact that it is one of the busiest fire stations in Columbia. Station No. 2 was the only viable station to use because it has both a ladder company and an engine company, and is centrally located, Sapp said.

This way, with the ladder truck available at Station No. 2, firefighters can “still provide protection to emergency calls,” Sapp said. He was uncertain how often the engine company would have to move from Station No. 2 to No. 9 but said it certainly would not be daily.

Station No. 9 will maintain a permanent staff, said Columbia Professional Firefighters’ President Brad Fraizer. Sapp said Columbia firefighters are “doing our best not to diminish any services.”

Markgraf told the council that the Fire Department's goal is to arrive at 80 percent of calls within 4 1/2 minutes. Sapp said that's essential because “four to six minutes without oxygen can diminish a person’s quality of life.”

Station Nos. 1 and 2 are the only ones in Columbia with ladder companies. Stations without ladder companies are using quint trucks, which have an aerial device that allows firefighters “to put a ladder and water in the air,” Sapp said.

The advantage ladder companies provide is the ability to reach greater heights. Sapp said ladder trucks can reach up to 95 feet, while quints can reach only 75 feet.

Sapp said people being rescued usually prefer ladder trucks because quints lack rescue buckets. Quints require people to climb straight onto a ladder, which Sapp called "nerve-racking."

Although Markgraf told the council he's "unhappy" about the required shifting of firefighters, both Sapp and Fraizer said Station No. 2's staff understands.

“Whatever we need to do, we will do,” Fraizer said.

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