Fire Chief Whitty defends six person crew

Fire Chief Michael Whitty. Photo by Tim Becker.

Fire Chief Michael Whitty told the Common Council on Monday that he considers a six person crew a bare minimum number in order to send firefighters into houses with adequate backup, as well as to respond to multiple calls at one time. According to Whitty, any less would result in a drastic change to the department’s firefighting strategy.

Whitty said he felt compelled to explain his position after hearing criticism of his department after his request to the council for additional overtime funds two weeks ago.

“It’s totally about safety, it’s not about anything else,” said Whitty. “What a six man response does for us is it ensures that two members go inside a building to attack a fire, if the building is salvageable at that point, if it’s a tenable building.”

“Fires are fought from the inside out, if you want to save the building. They are fought from the inside out, not the outside in.”

“There is a two in two out rule. OSHA clearly states if you send two men in a building that has a working fire in the structure, there must be two members outside to go inside if something goes wrong. With less than six we can’t meet that. Less that six – quite frankly I won’t put any of my members’ lives in jeopardy by sending them in the buildings, you just can’t do it, it’s unsafe.”

Whitty explained that with less than a six person crew, the strategy for fighting fires would have to change to a “defensive” posture that would only try to limit the fire from spreading to other houses, rather than trying to save the structure.

In addition to handing over records for overtime usage for the past two years, Whitty also gave the council a record of structure fires over the past two years which showed the total assessed value of homes with incidents, most of which had been saved, totaling over $5 million.

Whitty also said that they would most likely have to take one truck out of service if his staff was reduced. He also mentioned that a six person crew is essential to responding to multiple calls at one time and said that earlier in the day, the department responded to three calls all received within a 12 minute time frame.

“I don’t think the six has been questioned, to me six is a very reasonable number as far as staffing,” said Alderwoman Diane Hatzenbuhler, “I think we were just so caught off guard by the 53 out of 60, it’s gone.”

Whitty reported to the council two weeks ago that the department has already used $53,000 of it’s overtime budget due to staff having to cover for summer vacations, two officers out with injuries, and two retirements. The initial request from the department was for $100,000 which was in line with previous year’s spending, but the council approved only $60,000.

Whitty said that an additional $15,000 would cover expected overtime expenses until the end of this year.

Alderman Ed Russo said he recommended the council move forward with approving the expense, which most likely would have to come from the contingency fund.

Tim Becker

Tim Becker is the owner of Anthem Websites Inc. which publishes The Compass. He serves as both editor and a writer.