The July 23 letter from Mayor Ellen Polimeni and councilmembers on Fire Department staffing is alarming.
Regardless of City Hall’s “fire service data review”, OSHA requires four firefighters on the scene before two enter a burning building — whether there is one fire a month or one a day. The Fire Department’s on-duty staffing is insufficient for building fires and many other emergencies, including 48 storm-related responses July 23-24.
By purporting that “increasing on-duty staff at the Canandaigua Fire Department is not financially responsible,” City Hall paradoxically asserts other jurisdictions are irresponsible. Canandaigua, Fishers, Geneva and the VA Medical Center all require greater fire protection due to density and concentrations of vulnerable groups. Among these jurisdictions, only Canandaigua has fewer than four on-duty firefighters despite more major fires during the past decade than any of the others.
The applicable national standard calls for four firefighters to arrive within 5½ minutes of the initial alarm based on extensive fire studies by federal government researchers.
City Hall insinuates that “improving” cooperation with the VA Fire Department would meet fire response requirements. Yet, VA fire chiefs, past and present, have told city officials VA firefighters can respond only if not committed to an incident at the medical center. They have clearly stated their priority is to protect veterans and caregivers, and cannot compensate for the city’s understaffed Fire Department.
As assistant city Manager in 2015, John Goodwin rode in the Fire Department’s command vehicle to a building fire downtown. Now city manager, he knows first-hand VA firefighters were requested but unable to respond promptly due to a cardiac arrest at the medical center.
Last March, Canandaigua’s on-duty fire captain immediately requested the VA and two surrounding volunteer companies when the 911 Center confirmed a house fire with occupants trapped on Scotland Road. No mutual aid arrived within 5½ minutes of the initial alarm.
After a consultant contracted by the city in 2007 recommended increasing on-duty strength to four firefighters, the council determined staffing was “financially unsustainable” and put one on duty in 2010. Until then, Canandaigua had three paid on-duty firefighters for 102 years, through 18 recessions and the Great Depression.
On-duty staffing was restored to two in 2014.
City Hall states that having four on-duty firefighters requires adding nine positions. However, a pending grant application indicates eight are needed. Firefighters hired next year would start in July following the selection process. The tax increase on a $150,000 house would be $95 in 2018 and an additional $88 in 2019 for a total of $183.
The mayor and councilmembers note “there were no injuries or loss of life” at Nolan’s. Scotland Road goes unmentioned, where loss of life was likely had any of the three occupants been overcome by smoke before reaching a second-floor window and being rescued by firefighters. All three suffered smoke inhalation, and one had burns. Not enough firefighters arrived for timely search and rescue inside the home.
Council should not wait until an inevitable and preventable fatal fire before increasing Fire Department staffing.
Robert Case, retired fire chief and former Merrill Hose Company volunteer firefighter, Canandaigua Fire Department
James Farrell, retired fire chief, Canandaigua Fire Department
Donald Ford, retired fire chief, city of Pontiac (IL) Fire Department; and former Mutual Hook and Ladder Company volunteer foreman, Canandaigua Fire Department
Mark Marentette, former fire chief, Canandaigua Fire Department
Robert Palumbo, volunteer safety officer and former Erina Hose Company volunteer assistant fire chief, Canandaigua Fire Department
Daniel Speers, Erina Hose Company volunteer firefighter, Canandaigua Fire Department; and retired fire chief, Canandaigua VA Medical Center Fire Department