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Lawrence firefighters protest proposed budget to expand emergency medical services, reduce on-duty fire staff

Posted: 10:29 PM, Jul 09, 2024
Updated: 2024-07-10 10:32:29-04
Lawrence Professional Firefighters

LAWRENCE, Kan. — The Lawrence City Commission chambers weren't big enough to seat all of IAFF Local 1596 on Tuesday night.

The Lawrence Professional Firefighters Union showed up to reject a proposed budget on the first evening of public presentation.

The budget includes building two new fire stations along with adding two deputy chiefs, one human resource analyst and a budget analyst.

VOICE FOR EVERYONE | Share your voice with KSHB 41’s Alyssa Jackson

It would also expand emergency medical services by adding an ambulance.

For that to happen, according to the Lawrence city manager, they need to reduce the minimum on-duty fire engine staff from four to three.

IAFF Local 1596 said this would mean firefighters might have to wait for another crew in an interior fire attack because it usually requires four people.

Lawrence Professional Firefighters Union
Seamus Albritton, President of IAFF Local 1596

"It's not uncommon to have an incident emptying all five fire houses," said Seamus Albritton, president of the IAFF Local 1596. "Our help is 45 minutes away; everyone should be concerned about this."

Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Department Chief Rich Llewellyn explained their medical calls are growing, but it isn't unusual — 80% of their calls are medical.

The department responded to around 10,000 calls in 2006, and almost 17,000 in 2023.

"It’s been a very challenging budget process personally and professionally," Llewellyn said. "I’m up at night, up early in the morning, thinking of where this budget process is at, the impacts to our service and impacts to our personnel."

Lawrence Fire and Medical Chief Rich Llewellyn

The reduced on-site staff does not mean layoffs, just operating with less.

That's not a risk union member John Darling wants to take.

He stood outside of the city commission building with a fading voice to get his point across to commissioners and decision-makers.

"The real problem is a lot of the places that might be affected most by this are the lowest income," Darling said. "When I think about this, I’m losing my voice, but they don’t have much a voice anyway. They deserve a voice; that’s why we’re here speaking up for people who need protection."

Even though medical is said to be growing in demand for the communities they cover, it's a task Darling said they are already equipped to handle without changes to on-site fire staff.

John Darling, IAFF Local 1596

"It’s not either or. We are a joined service. Every single person on our fire trucks are an EMT or paramedic," he said. "We provide front-line emergency response. Everything we can do in an ambulance, we can do with a fire truck that shows up on scene except for transport."

Llewellyn acknowledged the city does not have the money to maintain on-duty staffing for fire engines along with expanding critical services.

He also agrees they need the current staffing levels.

Lawrence City Manager Craig Owens said there are several other departments projected to deal with changes too because revenue isn't growing as fast as expenses due to inflation and the economy.

The police department budget included eliminating two positions for a community service technician, a non-sworn investigator in the Special Victims Unit, and leaving the mental health co-responder position unfilled.

"We have to provide clean drinking water to every single faucet that comes out of the City of Lawrence," Owens said. "We have to deal with all the wastewater that’s treated; we have parks and rec, an expectation that we provide a level of service. We have police who are 24/7 365 that have to respond to critical incidents like fire and medical."

Craig Owens, Lawrence City Manager

Though Owens wasn't able to provide an exact amount, he said the proposed changes to the fire and medical department will reduce the city's expenses.

"I’d be disappointed if anyone on team Lawrence didn’t express disappointment with reducing levels of service," he said. "I share that. I don’t want to go backwards in service provision."

Fire fighters want the commission to see and hear them.

All Lawrence fire captains signed a letter sent to all commissioners.

They emphasized why the city follows national industry standards to operate with their current staffing levels.

All fire captains signed off on a letter so commissioners know industry standards recommend the current staffing levels they have.

READ | Letter captains submitted to commissioners

While there is still an opportunity for changes to be made to the budget, first responders want the city to strongly consider putting something else on the table.

"Not decide to save a few bucks and all of a sudden put me in a position to make hard decisions on how comfortable I feel going in a house versues how much I want to go home," Darling said.

The budget is not final until September. You can find the city's annual budget process and ways to get involved here.