Utica Fire Chief Chewing The Fat, Or What’s Left Of It, On WIBX
Utica’s Fire Chief has fond memories of what it was like to be an active fireman, responding to calls, saving lives and buildings.
”I used to have this tremendous job. When the bell hit, I would run, jump on the back of a rig – I was climbing on roofs, crawling through burning buildings.” Now, one of his primary roles is overseeing the department, and more specifically dealing with budget issues and staffing a shrinking department.
On WIBX First News with Keeler in the Morning, when referred to a negotiator for the department, Brooks laughed and said that was a nice way to characterize his budgetary responsibilities but said usually in negotiations ‘it’s give and take’, adding that’s not usually the case when dealing with budget cuts.
”Let’s put it this way, when I started we had 256 fire fighters, and the concept was community fire houses. Today, I have 107 on staff,” Brooks said.
”We spend an enormous amount of time working on the budget and I hear this word ‘wish list’ when we do calculations for staffing. [City officials ask] ‘what’s the least amount you can request?’ Then the mayor gets it and he cuts it, and the council comes in and get a second bit of the apple,” Brooks said.
”Years ago, [they said] ‘we’re getting rid of the fat’, then they got rid of the meat, now there’s a carcass on the table.”
How or why to fire fighters get paid to sleep?
”I don’t think people know the routine of a 21st century fire fighter. They go on 13,000 calls a year. They’re out on medical calls, we have a lot of fires, the got out on codes inspections, there’s training. [Utica] isn’t different than any other fire department in the world. I can’t think of any that work eight hour shifts. There is down time but there’s very little.”
A combination force in Utica with career and volunteer staff?
”We are surrounded by the best volunteer fire companies anywhere. When we have needed them, like at the brewery fire (and others), they are there in a heartbeat and they have state of the art equipment, and they accomplish whatever mission that are asked to accomplish,” Brooks said.
”So, to start a volunteer/backup department with 20 or so guys, its costs.”
Brooks estimates such a combination force in Utica, would cost are $250,000 between training, staffing and equipment. ”We have a tremendous asset – local volunteer fire departments – and we can just tap into for nothing.”
”In the 90′s, we were the largest piece of the city’s budget. We had 192 [fire fighters], we had fire houses throughout the city. Now, we have a bare-bones service on staff.”
On a city owned vehicle for the mayor?
”I have an enormous amount of respect for Mayor Palmieri. He’s out there in the street…”
”I’ve heard a couple comments about his city vehicle. Give me a break! He’s at every fire, every flood, this guy’s running here and running there. He’s callin’ me, meet me here for this. He runs a 70-million dollar [operation],” Brooks said, expressing his support for the mayor.
”I’ve heard it from elected officials, it tells me they can’t solve the problems if they’re resorting to that.”
How is the fire compliment determined – is it population or number of fires/calls?
”It deals with risks, population, there’s a lot of things,” Brooks said. ”But at the end of the day, general municipal law says that the common council has exclusive say over police and fire. And, it’s finances that usually determine that,” he said.
But, does that mean residents should be worried? Not so, says Chief Brooks.
”The Insurance Safety Office (ISO) analyzes every community in the country, and Utica is in the top 1% for fire protection,” he said.