ELMHURST – The Elmhurst Fire Department has three firefighter vacancies it hasn’t replaced because of state budgetary concerns.
Elmhurst City Manager Jim Grabowski addressed the issue at the April 18 City Council meeting after residents spoke about the vacancies at the April 4 and 11 meetings.
Elmhurst resident Geoff Gaebel spoke during the public comment portion of the April 18 meeting. Gaebel, a firefighter in another municipality, said the Elmhurst Fire Department has been short three firemen for about a year, bringing the unit down “to the lowest level since 1999.”
The problem with the shortage, Gaebel said, is either the fire trucks are operating below standard levels or firefighters are working overtime to make up for the staffing insufficiency.
“When these apparatuses run with less than three personnel, bad things happen,” Gaebel said. “Bad things happen to the firefighters; bad things happen to the city, to the residents, to the buildings, to the lives of this town.”
Gaebel cited a National Fire Protection Association document and a City Managers Association study that states at least a four-person crew is needed to pump and deliver water and perform search and rescue.
Grabowski provided the City Council and residents with the reasoning behind not hiring firefighters for the three vacant positions. He emphasized that despite the shortage the fire department is performing at the expected standards.
“I want to stress that the residents of Elmhurst are safe right now as we were nine months ago and nine years ago,” Grabowski said.
He went on to say he has not authorized hiring the three replacements because of the state budget crisis.
“The potential direct effect of [the Illinois budget crisis] to Elmhurst is a proposal to eliminate $2.2 million of Elmhurst revenue,” Grabowski said. “This is revenue that we would normally receive unless the General Assembly approves legislation to change the funding formula and withhold this from Elmhurst.”
The city manager said the biggest expense for the city is personnel, so if there is a reduction in revenue, the city may have to consider layoffs.
He added that a clause in the collective bargaining agreement with the fire union prohibits layoffs to firefighters during the contract period, which lasts through May 2017.
To make up for the shortage, Grabowski said firefighters are being paid time-and-a-half to cover all three shifts.
Alderman Mark Mulliner spoke after Grabowski, saying he believes the reduction in staff negatively affects the firefighters.
“By placing firemen in overtime and requiring them to be on overtime you are putting an undue burden on those firefighters as far as expecting them to be there on double shifts during certain times,” Mulliner said. “There is a grave concern about that.”
He also said Grabowski’s cost argument for not replacing the firefighters was invalid because paying firefighters overtime is also a great cost to the city. Additionally, Mulliner said, there have been other hires in the last year that contradict the potential revenue reduction from the state.
“I’m gravely concerned about the fact that we continually say we are not going to hire these three firefighters,” Mulliner said. “By the way, it is actually four [vacancies] because we are down a chief right now. “