Recent change to Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical staffing minimums puts fire engine temporarily out of service

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

LDCFM Firetruck Ladder 5 in July 2023.

A Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical fire engine was temporarily taken out of service Thursday due to recent changes to the department’s daily staffing minimums.

The Journal-World has learned that LDCFM authorized a minimum daily staffing reduction in early May, lowering the department’s daily minimum staffing level of first responders from 39 to 36. While Seamus Albritton, the president of the local firefighters union, expressed concern to the Journal-World about how those changes will affect LDCFM’s ability to respond to emergencies, Fire Chief Rich Llewellyn said Friday that work is already underway to mitigate the issue.

According to a statement from Llewellyn shared with the Journal-World, a fire engine for Station #5 — located at 1911 Stewart Ave. near the University of Kansas campus — was temporarily taken out of service on Thursday based on LDCFM’s staffing plan for the 38 staff members available during part of the shift. In the statement, Llewellyn said that’s one of a few incremental plans crafted to address each step in the potential reduction from 39 to 36 responders from day to day.

“On days when we cannot staff 39 people, we have plans for operating with staffs of 36, 37 and 38 people — all of which support a sufficient number of apparatuses to fulfill the safety and security needs of our community,” Llewellyn said in the statement.

Thursday’s plan involved taking the fire engine out of service while adding an additional ambulance into service, which can operate with two people as opposed to the three Llewellyn said a fire unit requires. Under the plan, Llewellyn said Station #5 still had one fire unit in place, along with two medical units.

Albritton, who spoke to the Journal-World on behalf of the International Association of Firefighters Local 1596 Thursday afternoon, said it’s a national standard to staff a fire engine with four people, however. That’s reflected in a set of standards released by the National Fire Protection Association in 2020.

But developing a staffing plan that can work even with limited staff was intended to reduce the occurrence of mandatory overtime, Llewellyn said, a change that was a response to concerns from IAFF 1596 on behalf of LDCFM employees. Llewellyn said he hopes that will improve their work-life balance in turn.

Mandatory overtime has indeed been occurring at a substantial rate at LDCFM. Llewellyn said the department has to reduce spending on that front because as of earlier this month, it had spent 88% of its overtime budget for the entire year.

That’s a concern Albritton also spoke with the Journal-World about this week. He said the department’s call volume has increased by over 70% since the last time more units and employees were integrated into the system, an issue that had reached a “pressure point” last summer as LDCFM was forced to have employees work overtime hours to meet its necessary staffing capacity at a higher rate than usual.

But the reason behind the longer response times, Albritton said, isn’t just because of the recently lowered daily staffing minimum. In part, it’s also because the city has continued to grow and expand while LDCFM hasn’t added a new station since 2006. In turn, Albritton said that often causes a unit stationed in one fire district to have to respond in another district farther away when a local unit is already out on a call.

“I’m not just responding to the 4 or 5 miles around whatever station I’m at; I have to try to get to an emergency that’s across town within the national standardized limit — which is, frankly, it’s impossible just because of geography and the laws of physics, right?” Albritton told the Journal-World.

The union did successfully push for adding five more full-time positions during the City of Lawrence’s budget process last year, but Albritton said LDCFM hasn’t been able to fill all those slots. Llewellyn, in his statement, said the department is working to increase its staffing levels to help alleviate the issue and added four new individuals to its team after a recent fire academy.

Albritton called it a “snowball effect,” as the average amount of overtime first responders at LDCFM are being asked to work creates a “less tenable” situation for employees.

“The additional staff will help us maintain at least 39 people on every shift, so we don’t have to alter apparatuses and staffing,” Llewellyn said. “Please note, members of LDCFM are rigorously trained so adding new members to our team takes time.”

Albritton said he’d like to see LDCFM find the funding to host another fire academy in the near future to further bolster its hiring efforts.

As for a long-term solution for solving the department’s issues with response times, Albritton said LDCFM needs to be funded appropriately. He said the department has continuously asked for more resources, whether it be more staff or new stations, and has often been denied, all while providing “more services than the average.” LDCFM handles both firefighting — including fire suppression and hazmat response — and running a county ambulance service, which Albritton said is rare. But the department’s funding doesn’t reflect that level of service, he said.

“If we are in a spot where we don’t have enough people to keep a fire truck in service, that’s an emergency, and in our minds justifies finding that money to put on an academy class, to onboard some people to get new firefighters, new paramedics, into the system to prevent this from happening going forward,” Albritton said.


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