By Kim Ring
Telegram & Gazette Staff
Posted Mar 11, 2017 at 7:00 PM Updated Mar 11, 2017 at 11:34 PM
In the 1970s, firefighters called it “firehouse roulette.”
Now, some 40 years later, some municipal leaders continue to gamble as they close down engine companies for budgetary reasons or during staffing shortages. The process, called “browning out,” refers to the temporary closing, usually on a shift-by-shift basis, of one fire station or piece of apparatus. Firefighters say it also includes hoping that no fires break out in the area where staffing is short.
It’s a practice that’s frowned on by firefighters, who say dipping below recommended staffing and equipment levels endangers the public and themselves. And in Holyoke, where three people died in a fire New Year’s Day while the closest fire truck – Engine 2 – was browned out, firefighters have locked horns with the fire chief and the mayor over whether a crew on the browned-out engine might have changed the outcome of that blaze.
Brownouts happen in Worcester, too, and while they’d like it to stop, the union leadership understands why it’s done. Mike Papagni, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1009, said the brownouts happen most frequently in the summer when vacation time is being used.
“It’s tied to vacation,” he said. “And the positions are not back-filled.”
But in Worcester, there are “rolling brownouts” and the closures only happen in firehouses with two engine companies, so there’s always one ready to roll. In the city, that means stations at Southbridge Street, Franklin Street and Grove Street are the only ones where an engine company would be closed in a staffing shortage because there are two in each of those stations.
In accordance with National Fire Protection Association standards, the city staffs engine companies with four firefighters; but in shortages, the fourth is used to cover absences on other trucks where fewer than three firefighters are working. When that happens, staffing does fall below the standard, Lt. Papagni said.
“The practice of browning out puts the community and the firefighters at risk,” Lt. Papagni said. “Science shows that doesn’t only apply to fires but to other emergencies, as well.”
Firefighters respond to medical calls in Worcester and many times arrive before an ambulance, he explained.
Lt. Papagni said the families of firefighters worry enough without having to think about their loved ones fighting fires with fewer than the recommended number of personnel. He said the situation in Holyoke is a reminder of what can happen, though the process there is different.
In Wilmington, Delaware, firefighters called for an end to the practice after two firefighters died in a September blaze while a nearby engine was shut down, Dave Statter of the firefighting news website Statter911 wrote. A third firefighter died from her injuries in that fire, weeks after the practice was reinstated. Officials there said the lack of that engine did not affect the outcome of the fire.
Mr. Statter said he’s asked fire chiefs why they allow brownouts to happen because, he wonders, if the engine companies aren’t needed on a particular day, why are they needed at all.
“Personally, I believe brownouts are gutless,” he wrote, adding that it is worse when fire officials seem to condone the practice.
Chad Cunningham, president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1693, said in a written statement that he believes having Engine 2 available on New Year’s Day in Holyoke would have made a difference.
“Engine 2, out of service for most of the last two years, is located at 600 High St., along with Engine 1 and Truck 1, and its personnel would have had a significant impact on this fire,” he wrote. “It’s bad enough for a mayor to say brownouts will have no impact, but it’s awful when a fire chief says it.”
While no one can say if any of the three people who lost their lives in Holyoke would have been saved if staffing levels had been increased, just wondering about that can take a toll on firefighters who recover the bodies and deal with the aftermath of such a fire.
“We never know what we’ll encounter when the bell rings, and that is why it is crucial that our fire stations are adequately staffed with firefighters and equipment,” said Rich MacKinnon Jr., president of the Professional Fire fighters of Massachusetts.
Lt. Papagni said the union wants to work with newly named Worcester Fire Chief Michael J. Lavoie to eliminate brownouts.
“If we can find some common ground on this, it would be good,” he said.
Currently, Deputy Fire Chief John F. Sullivan said, Worcester has a complement of 406 firefighters, and 26 more are in the fire academy, but as firefighters retire or leave the job for other reasons, that number drops. Still, the city meets the NFPA requirements of having four firefighters at a fire within four minutes of a call and 16 firefighters there in eight minutes, even with brownouts, he explained.
In 2015, the Worcester Fire Department had 302 brownouts but it’s important to remember there are two shifts per day for a total of about 730 shifts per year so the brownouts happened 41 percent of the time. The number of brownouts decreased in 2016 to 273 or 37 percent of shifts even though overtime staffing was called in to cover many of the firefighter absences to reduce the number of brownouts.
Data shows most of the brownouts occur during the summer months and on weekends, Chief Sullivan said, adding that managing vacation time can help with staffing issues.
“We do regulate how vacation days are used to the extent that we can while still meeting contractual obligations,” he said.