Lexington Fire Department Struggling With Understaffing - FOX 21/27 WFXR Roanoke/WWCW Lynchburg News, Weather

Lexington Fire Department Struggling With Understaffing

Posted: Updated:

When seconds count, the more emergency responders you have on the ground, the better. But as Lexington Fire Chief Ty Dickerson will tell you, that can be easier said than done.

"There's always room for improvement," Dickerson said.

The Lexington Fire Department is made up of 10 career firefighters,including the chief, and several dozen volunteers.

Dickerson says he can't speak highly enough about his volunteers and the job they do, but notes that it's become increasingly difficult for them to find time to complete their regular training and be available for calls, while doing their normal jobs and spending time with their families. Because his budget only allows him to hire so many career firefighters, staffing has become an issue.

"I think what we're trying to do is raise the bar for ourselves and challenge ourselves to do better," Dickerson said.

To help illustrate the situation, this year Dickerson began tracking how many of the calls his agency responds to are "understaffed" based on nationally accepted standards. Those standards indicate there should be at least four firefighters per engine.

Between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2013, 26 percent of the calls the Lexington Fire Department responded to were understaffed.

"When we pull up in front of a burning house, the house doesn't know whether we're a fully-paid fire department, a 100 percent volunteer fire department, or a combination fire department," Dickerson said. "The fire will continue to burn at the same rate either way."

Lt. T.J. Robertson, a Lexington firefighter, says a fire typically doubles in size every 30 to 60 seconds, and when you're on a truck with only two or three firefighters that have to do the job of four, you lose precious time.

"Being the first engine in, there are a lot of tasks we need to do," Robertson said, "and they need to be done fast."

The National Fire Protection Association says when responding to a 1,000-square-foot residential fire, the following staffing is needed to be most effective:

-Water supply: 1 firefighter on the hydrant
-Pump operator: 1 firefighter
-Hand lines: 9 firefighters handling 3 lines
-Force, entry, search: 2 firefighters
-Ventilation: 2 firefighters
-Command: 2 firefighters
-Rapid Intervention Team: 3 firefighters

"The more firefighters, the better," Robertson said, "and the faster they get there, the better."

Dickerson hopes by keeping track of understaffed calls, he can convince city leaders to help him fix the situation, whether it be giving him the money to hire more career firefighters or giving him additional resources to recruit and retain volunteers.

"Gone are the days, because of a fiscal responsibility to the taxpayer, that a fire chief can go to City Council and say, 'I need this because I say so,'" Dickerson said. "We have to back this up with performance measures, with stats, and with facts."