Citizens feel burned by proposed budget cuts to fire company

Thursday, July 29, 2010 | 4:24 p.m. CDT; updated 9:55 p.m. CDT, Thursday, July 29, 2010

COLUMBIA — Firefighting crews are being spread more thinly across Columbia, and residents of one affected part of the city are worried response times will get longer.

City Manager Bill Watkins' proposed budget for fiscal year 2011 would leave eight vacant firefighter positions unfilled. That means Fire Station No. 2 on West Worley Street will continue to operate with only one company — a fully staffed firetruck — compared to the two it operated with in early summer.

Station No. 2 is one of three Columbia stations that houses two companies.

Columbia Fire Battalion Chief Steven Sapp said Engine No. 2, a firetruck based in Station No. 2, was shut down temporarily when staff levels were low because of Fire Station No. 9's opening in February. Engine No. 2 was last staffed around a month ago.

That has left some residents of the Highland Park neighborhood near Worley and West Boulevard uneasy.

"We do not think that public safety is the best place to make cutbacks at all," said Nancy Holliday, president of the Highland Park Neighborhood Association.

She said having the fire department nearby is important for her community as many residents are in their retirement years. She said many residents have called her concerned about the company's closure.

"It's comforting to have the fire department close," Holliday said. She said when someone in her neighborhood calls an ambulance, the fire department is always the first to arrive.

If Engine No. 2 is permanently shut down, the West Worley Street station will only house its other truck, Ladder Company No. 2.

Brad Fraizer, president of the Columbia Professional Firefighters union, said if the ladder company is on a call and an emergency arises, the next closest company will have to be dispatched from either downtown, Chapel Hill Road or Blue Ridge Road.

Fraizer said this creates a domino effect, as the next closest company could be leaving its own area uncovered.

But he said he agreed with Columbia Fire Chief William Markgraf that station No. 2 was the best place for the cut as it didn't completely shut down a station.

Watkins said there are the same number of fire companies operating in Columbia today as there were a year ago because Station No. 9 on Blue Ridge Road now has a company, offsetting the loss from Station No. 2. He said because the city is operating nine stations instead of eight, the fire department has a better response time.

Sapp said the department is preparing a formal statement and he will answer questions after it is released.

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