Oct 17, 2020 Updated Nov 1, 2020
HOBART — Plenty of questions with few answers at this point. That’s how residents responded at a public meeting on Hobart Fire Department staffing shortage Saturday at a blustery Revelli Bandshell in Festival Park. Hobart residents Keith Smith and Michael Myers organized the meeting to accept comments about reductions in the fire department that have included the former closing of two stations. There have been about 11 to 12 people working per shift, and the department has had two of its four fire stations unmanned or with limited staffing at times because of a manpower shortage.
City leaders are working on a strategy to staff all fire stations, with the possibility of establishing a volunteer firefighter program. Smith, who moved to Hobart from Highland, which has a volunteer fire department, was seeking public input on the fire department so he could relay those concerns to Mayor Brian Snedecor and the City Council, none of whom attended the meeting.
When Smith moved to Hobart 13 years ago, one fire station was being closed. Then, this year two stations were temporarily closed. “I know the risks to citizens and I cannot allow (fire station closings) to happen,” Smith said. Smith has been researching city records since he learned of a $425,000 shortfall in the public safety budget due to COVID-19 overtime. He has been trying to find cost analyses of city budget cuts.
Smith is encouraging residents to contact him on Facebook about fire department issues. “We have a lot of concerns,” Smith said, citing manpower issues and access to supplies. One concern deals with the coronavirus and the possibility of the disease closing an entire station. Another issue is the lack of immediate replacement of a firefighter upon retirement. Others questioned why ambulance fees do not revert back to the department but instead are placed in the city’s general fund.
Snedecor previously told The Times the city is experiencing financial struggles because of property tax caps, COVID-19 and other issues. He also indicated the community of nearly 30,000 people doesn’t have a heavy industrial tax base to help fund public safety.
He believes starting a volunteer program could be a good way to supplement the full-time service already in place.
But Enrique Lopez, president of Hobart Professional Firefighters Local 1641, said the city should look to a solution that involves staffing of full-time firefighters. “To give our citizens the best as firefighters and paramedics, we must have highly trained professionals who are guaranteed to be on station to served 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days out of the year. That cannot be guaranteed with a supplemental firefighting force,” Lopez said Saturday in a news release. “We look forward to working with city officials on a solution that best serves the citizens of Hobart.”
Minimum staffing is 16 firefighters per shift, Lopez said. With a staffing of only 11 or 12 currently, the department can only handle two ambulances and two engines without using overtime. “If there are more than two emergencies in the city of Hobart at once, residents must wait an extended time for ambulances and fire engines to assist from surrounding communities during a potentially life-threatening situation,” Lopez said.
Myers has worked 20 years in emergency medical services for another community which he did not wish to identify. He said he has worked with Hobart EMS personnel on a number of occasions and respects their professionalism and compassion. Three times, Myers, said, Hobart personnel have responded to a call from his residence. “You guys deserve better,” he told Hobart firefighters. “Your community deserves better.”
Among Myers’ concerns were response times with diminished crews. Mutual aid from other communities is available, he said, but that also takes time to respond. Hobart has a full-time fire department of 55 firefighters with fire protection and advanced life support ambulance service. Hobart also services travelers along Interstate 65 and U.S. 30.
Cutbacks, Myers said, jeopardize safety to citizens and fire crews. Current Hobart response times, he added, are “ridiculous.”
According to people at the meeting, the first contract with Hobart Professional Firefighters Local 1641 calls for a full-time fire staff of 61. That contract, passed in January, runs through 2022. Upon learning that it takes about two years to train a firefighter, Smith commented, “We’re not hiring fast enough.”
Resident Debi Kutzer said Snedecor has not lived up to his campaign promises from years ago. She produced a March 28, 2007, letter to firefighters in which Snedecor, then a first-time candidate for mayor, wrote, “The current manpower is stretched to the limit. I will make it a priority to structure a plan with your chief to bring these numbers up to a level that will meet the needs of the city and create a safer environment for the employees.
Concerned over safety of firefighters and citizens, Kutzer questioned the lack of funds for the fire department. “Money is always available,” she said.