LORAIN — An abandoned house on West 13th Street was the site of a fire department demonstration Saturday morning.
Envisioning a cool summer night about 10 p.m., the demonstration stated that crews were called to a working structure fire at Reid Avenue and 13th Street. Firefighters were met on the scene by a young man who said his baby was asleep upstairs when the fire broke out in the kitchen at the back of the house. His wife ran to get the baby, but the man hasn't seen her in awhile and she didn't respond when he called out to her.
Crews played the scenario twice, once with 14 firefighters and again with 16 to demonstrate to the local officials how much of a difference two crew members can make.
The demonstration comes about two months after Lorain Professional Firefighters Local 267 posted an open letter on its Facebook page highlighting the union's safety concerns at current staffing levels. The fire department has about 66 firefighters, and through a deal between the union and city, are authorized to use overtime when necessary to keep 15 men on a shift — allowing them to keep the tower truck available as often as possible. Staffing levels still limits crews' capability to simultaneously perform search and rescue and knock back fires, union President Jon Stephanchick explained.
Fire Chief Chris Radman and Capts. Frank Griffith and Shawn Lloyd oversaw the scenario.
The times used in the simulations were averaged from Lorain Fire Department calls.
In the first simulation, crews were able to man four trucks, but had to wait longer to send in a search team to recover two reported victims from the second-story bedroom.
During the run-through, Griffith watches the simulation on a laptop at the back of the command vehicle, smoke billowing from the structure onscreen. He directs crews to establish a water supply and start attacking the fire. It is not until the third truck arrives on scene that a search can start. By then, seven minutes have passed and the fire has spread farther through the century home and smoke is thick as firefighters start their search.
"Seven minutes is too long," Radman said, watching crews work the simulation.
By the time firefighters pull the woman and her baby from the house, more than 15 minutes have passed since the time of call.
Stephanchick explains it is unlikely either would have survived, and probably would have died from smoke inhalation before the fire reached the bedroom.
The second simulation's two additional firefighters allows the department to run five trucks, including its tower truck, to the fire. The additional crew puts firefighters four to five minutes ahead of where they were in the first simulation, as they can work on getting the fire knocked down and searching for victims almost simultaneously.
Compared to the first simulation, crews got the mother and infant out of the home five minutes faster — before the bulk of the smoke and fire moved into the second floor. Stephanchick said they would be considered "viable victims," and would have probably survived.
Griffith said from a command standpoint, the additional manpower lowers stress levels. The added firefighters allow the search to be "almost automatic," with enough crews on scene to keep civilians and firefighters safe.
By law the department follows a "two in, two out" system, Griffith explained, meaning for every two firefighters sent in to search, two must be outside the structure in case those firefighters need assistance or to be rescued themselves.
He said the city also has a high call volume. While firefighters in other municipalities may only see four working structure fires in their career, Lorain firefighters can be called to that many in one day. Documents from the department show crews responded to 174 structure fires and 193 other fires last year, totaling more than 360 for the 70 personnel on staff at the time.
Griffith said the more firefighters on shift, the safer it is for everyone involved — but the sticking point is the budget.
Mayor Joe Koziura agreed. He said he thought the demonstration was well done, noting the department is made of dedicated individuals.
"It’s all part of the budget process, money-wise and all that stuff," he said. "Council controls the purse strings because any additional men is going to cost money, and that’s part of the process."
He said the administration just received notification the union would like to start contract negotiations within the next 60 days. Its current contract runs through the end of the year.
For Chief of Staff Phil Dore, the exercise was a familiar one. Before working in the city's Safety/Service department, he was a firefighter and later chief for nearly 30 years. In his time, the department was closer to 90 strong, even after layoffs.
"What they were saying is absolutely true, manpower means everything and every minute counts," he said. "It’s a real struggle for any community that doesn’t have the resources to put 20 guys in their stations everyday. … The city of Lorain is the highest-staffed fire department in the county. We have more on duty everyday than any other city, we just have to figure out what’s the safest way to use the resources that we have."