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Union: Lancaster, Pa., firefighter staff cuts could have consequences

Union: Lancaster, Pa., firefighter staff cuts could have consequences

Union: Lancaster, Pa., firefighter staff cuts could have consequences

July 4: Lancaster’s firefighters union is criticizing the city’s decision to reduce the number of firefighters on duty in response to budget constraints.

Beginning Monday, the Lancaster City Fire Department reduced the number of firefighters it keeps on duty from 13 to 11 to save on overtime pay. The union criticized the decision in a Facebook post later in the day, accusing city administration of lying to firefighters last year when it said staffing levels would not be affected by the closure of Station 6 on Fremont Street in the city’s southwest quadrant. In the post, Lancaster Professional Firefighters, IAFF Local 319, also expressed concerns about public safety as a result of the change.

“(The union) understands that the city has financial constraints and we have done our part over the past ten years. Staffing issues need to be addressed and there needs to be a plan and a path forward. Without this, we could see the same results we saw in 2013,” union President Geoff Stone said in a statement Wednesday, referring to two separate fatal fires 11 years ago that occurred when the department was “staffed at the same level we have now.”

Mayor Danene Sorace said staffing levels have not been affected by the change and she was disappointed by the union’s post hinting at it. There have been no layoffs, she said, and the office has remained staffed by 69 firefighters since her tenure began in 2018.

More than 80 percent of the office’s overtime budget for the year — $370,000 of $450,000 — has been spent, and Sorace said the reduction to 11 on-duty firefighters will help. City firefighters often have to work overtime because of a policy that allows eight on-duty people to be off with paid time off at a time.

Sorace said finances have not been a major issue in the past because of a decade-old agreement with the union under which firefighters would receive regular pay for overtime hours worked. That agreement ended earlier this year and firefighters began receiving overtime pay.

Sorace and Fire Chief Todd Hutchinson said they do not anticipate the change will affect public safety.

“I think my commitment to public safety has been clear,” Sorace said. “(The Fire Department) is the only department in the city that has not seen any staff reductions.”

In the statement, Stone said the union was unable to include a staffing number in a collective bargaining agreement and that 11 firefighters on duty are not enough to meet the needs of the public. He said a minimum of 15 firefighters are needed for standard townhouse fire calls.

Hutchison couldn’t give details on the ideal number of firefighters on duty, as it fluctuates each day, though he said most calls are answered by people who are on duty. The city relies on mutual aid from nearby departments for major fires, he said, like many other departments across the country.

“It’s not financially viable to hire staff to anticipate large fires every day,” Hutchinson said.

Sorace said there are no planned layoffs in public safety this year, meaning firefighters and police officers. However, he said that could change in 2025 due to the city’s fiscal challenges.

Lancaster faces a $10 million deficit in 2025 that would require a combination of tax increases and staff cuts. City officials are currently creating two budgets to prepare for the adoption or rejection this fall of a home rule charter. With home rule, the city would be able to raise income taxes, an ability currently restricted by the state; without it, the city would have to raise property taxes.

Sorace said both budgets will be presented to the public in late September or early October. Voters will decide in November’s general election whether to adopt local self-government.

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