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Firefighters Say Cuts Eroding Safety

Thousands of firefighters across the country face possible layoffs this year, prompting concern that deep local government budget cuts will delay emergency response times.

Since late last year, cities have been forced to shutter local fire stations, reduce services at others and cut the number of firefighters dispatched on emergency calls. Firefighting positions have been eliminated or are on the chopping block in cities such as Orlando, Atlanta, Flint, Mich., and Columbus, Ohio.

"Whatever you do that results in increasing response times (to fires), you are absolutely playing Russian roulette," says Harold Schaitberger, head of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF).

Up to 5,000 firefighting jobs could be in jeopardy, according to an IAFF survey of members, which includes 292,000 firefighters.

Among those facing the most severe cutbacks:

-- The elimination of 22 firefighters and other cuts in Flint, Mich., are being blamed by some residents and fire union officials for slowing the response to a fatal fire in April.

Mark Kovach, vice president of the local firefighters union, believes the lack of a nearby ladder and water truck taken out of service by cuts hampered the rescue. Flint Mayor Michael Brown believes the tragedy "could not have been avoided."

-- In Atlanta, personnel shortages have forced 24-hour closures of several fire stations and the city's overall public protection rating was downgraded this month. The lower rating could result in up to 10 percent higher insurance premiums, says Georgia Insurance and Fire Safety Commissioner John Oxendine. "The most important function of any government is the protection of life and property," he says.

-- Proposed budget cuts in Columbus are targeting 238 firefighters and seven of the city's 32 fire stations, says Battalion Chief David Whiting. "These cuts would set us back 10 years," he says.

-- Orlando officials will lay off 46 firefighters, effective Oct. 2, says union President Steve Clelland.

The issue has become so heated that a labor dispute and threatened picket lines involving Providence firefighters forced Obama administration officials to cancel appearances at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting there.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano acknowledged the troubles facing local fire agencies when she told a Senate panel last month that the administration would double hiring assistance to fire departments to $420 million in 2010.

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