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'We’re asking for superhuman feats': Cincinnati declares emergency due to fire department staffing

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Posted at 11:47 AM, Dec 29, 2021

CINCINNATI — Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley declared an emergency Wednesday to confront a firefighter shortage.

The order says the extremely rapid increase in new cases of COVID-19 in the Cincinnati region during this holiday season and specifically the impact on the fire department staffing levels constitutes a public danger and fire-safety emergency.

The order allows Cincinnati Fire Chief Michael Washington to work around policies to mandate overtime. It expires in 60 days.

Chief Washington sent a letter to firefighters alerting them to the change.

“COVID-19, a higher-than-normal retirement rate, and a lack of fire recruit classes for several years have combined to create a critical shortage of available, fully qualified firefighters needed to protect the 52 neighborhoods that make up our city,” said Washington.

He says the department faces unprecedented times in terms of keeping qualified, healthy firefighters. The chief said up to this point, he has relied on staff to volunteer for overtime. However, he said, we have reached the point where the demand has outpaced that.

“I have a duty, as the Fire Chief, to protect the citizens and the property of Cincinnati and to protect the members that make up the Cincinnati Fire Department, both sworn and non-sworn,” wrote Chief Washington. “I cannot, and will not, authorize browning-out or closing 5 or more fire companies on New Year’s Eve, or any other day, because of a manpower shortage, regardless of the reason.”

“We’re asking for superhuman feats,” said Matt Alter, President of the Cincinnati Fire Fighters Union Local 48.

“An emergency order where they may force firefighters to stay past their normal shift has not happened in any recent recorded history,” said Alter.

Alter says when firefighters work overtime, it is not simply a few hours here or there. A firefighter on overtime will be at the firehouse running or running calls for at least 48 hours straight.

“You’re exhausted. It’s real. Burnout is real,” said Alter.

Alter says at least 30 firefighters tested positive for COVID-19 this week.

“The overwhelming majority of Cincinnati firefighters are vaccinated, but with this new variant that's out, and what’s going on, we’re not seeing any difference,” said Alter.

On top of those quarantines, others are on holiday leave. So by New Year's Eve, Cincinnati would have only 120 firefighters on duty when there should be at least 193, according to Alter.

“We don’t know when the next fire is going to happen. We don't know when the next river emergency is going to occur,” said Alter.

The emergency declaration comes the same day Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus called a press conference with Hamilton County Public Health Commissioner Greg Kesterman tp talk about the skyrocketing case count in the region.

“It is slowly becoming a reality here that our hospitals are becoming overwhelmed, and it's in part because of rooms. It's in part because nurse staff are getting sick with COVID-19,” said Kesterman.

Driehaus urged people to mask in public and consider smaller NYE parties.

“We’re relying on people to heed the information and the concerns that are coming from the medical community and the hospitals and change their behaviors accordingly,” said Driehaus.

Right now, Alter says Cincinnati Fire is reviewing CDC quarantine guidelines to see if anyone can return to work sooner. He is urging leaders to look beyond this current emergency.

“When we fall short of not having a class or waiting a year because of budget issues, your fire department has to be off the table,” said Alter.

Chief Washington said a new recruit class should be available in February to help.