City fire study recommends closing stations

No changes expected soon, mayor says

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A draft report that suggests eventually reducing the number of city of Pittsburgh fire stations from 29 to 23 prompted a pre-election challenge today from the firefighters union to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's administration.

International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1 President Joe King called on Mr. Ravenstahl, who faces a Nov. 6 General Election challenge, to say whether he will close fire stations if elected. "The study says you should close community fire stations," Mr. King said, standing across the street from the City-County Building where the mayor was in his 5th Floor office. "Do you want to close Squirrel Hill? Do you want to close Arlington? Do you want to close Northview Heights?"

He said the city already is falling short of meeting national fire response time standards. "By your own numbers, we're not meeting the national standards. How could you even think, or consider, about any future reductions?"

"The plan, as I know it, is a 10- to 15-year plan for implementation, so there's a lot of issues we have to address before we close any firehouses, or even think about closing any firehouses, including the demolition of abandoned structures and vacant houses," Mr. Ravenstahl said later. "We had more multiple-alarm fires in Pittsburgh last year than we did in Philadelphia.

"There are issues with the Fire Bureau, comprehensive issues, that are much deeper than firehouses."

Mr. King urged Mr. Ravenstahl and Republican challenger Mark DeSantis to pledge not to reduce fire stations.

"I'm not willing to unilaterally make that statement," said Mr. Ravenstahl. He said, however, that the city has an obligation to get the number of abandoned, fire-prone homes down. "Until we can deal with that issue and reduce the incidence of fires, I'm not comfortable making any changes in the deployment of the Fire Bureau."

Mr. DeSantis said he would "absolutely" support the recommendations of the study, including consolidating or closing fire stations. "I'm an advocate of implementing the results of these kinds of studies. But we obviously don't want to compromise public safety."

The Comprehensive Management Study is dated June 2007, and was completed by Virginia-based System Planning Corp.'s TriData division, under a $194,000 contract with the state-picked Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority. The study contract was later expanded by $74,000 to include a review of Emergency Medical Services, and the final results are expected in February.

The draft notes that fire deaths per capita are 42 percent higher in Pittsburgh than the national average. It finds that after six stations were closed in 2005, response times slowed to a "minimal" degree.

"Of concern, however, are the times for all engines to arrive at structure fires, as the average travel time increased by one-half minute from 2004 to 2006," it reads.

It characterizes the city's fire prevention efforts as "dismal" and the condition of Fire Bureau facilities as "deplorable."

In the short term, it recommends moving the Brighton Heights station's trucks to Woods Run, consolidating two Oakland stations and merging the Greenfield and Hazelwood stations, and moving the Swisshelm Park station to a more central location in Squirrel Hill.

Longer term, it calls for eliminating the stations in Arlington, Northview Heights, and the Squirrel Hill station at Northumberland.

Those recommendations would allow for a staff cut from 641 to 572, according to the report.

If reductions "affect citizen safety, or firefighter safety, then I have the right to take this city to court," Mr. King said. "It'll end up in arbitration. ??? Who the hell do you think is going to win? Me."

The report also includes recommendations that Mr. King heartily approved of, including continuing the current practice of putting four men on each truck, and increasing demolition.

Mr. Ravenstahl has said he will double the city's demolition budget next year, allowing for the razing of 500 to 600 abandoned buildings.


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