New Orleans firefighters struggling to protect lives after furloughs cut workforce to ‘unsafe levels’

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NEW ORLEANS, LA – As the “Big Easy” struggles with a raging pandemic and surging violent crime, the residents rely on the emergency services for the protection of their lives and property. Those emergency services say the recent New Orleans’ budget cuts and furloughs have placed that protection in jeopardy.

New Orleans city leaders announced furloughs and city-wide budget cuts in October. The cuts were blamed directly on coronavirus lockdown restrictions cutting into the amount of taxes collected. All city employees received the equivalent of a ten percent pay cut effective October 10th.

The temporary furloughs will last until the end of the year. 4,700 employees, including police, fire, and other public safety workers are affected. City administrators have warned that there will be additional cuts next year, including layoffs and early retirements.

Aaron Mischler, president of the New Orleans Firefighters Association, explained:

“Without a full complement of firefighters on the job, we can’t do our jobs effectively and fires are going to continue to get bigger. Lives are going to be lost.”

New Orleans Fire Department Interim Superintendent, Roman Nelson, said the department is doing everything it can to deal with the furloughs. For example, each fire unit now carries only three firefighters instead of four. 

Nelson said the furloughs are having a negative impact on the fire department’s ability to respond to emergencies:

“You can play the hypothetical what-if game all of the time, the fact of the matter is, and I said this before the city council, furloughs do have an impact. We have companies out of service on a daily basis. 

“So, it reduces our overall staffing, but we’ve taken steps to make sure its response times are within a reasonable time frame.”

Firefighters are pointing to a house fire that broke out on Tuesday, December 9, 2020, in the Tremé neighborhood of the city to show that the furloughs are affecting response times, something city officials deny.

The three-alarm fire destroyed an abandoned home and damaged two other houses in the 2400 block of Dumaine Street. The fire also sent a six-year-old girl to the hospital with burns on her neck. Firefighters say seconds matter when they get a call to respond.

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Although the first fire unit arrived at the fire within the company’s average of six minutes, Mischler said the response was delayed, starting at the initial dispatch:

“It should’ve dispatched as a one-alarm, putting 15 firefighters on the scene within that 6-to-8-minute time instead of just three.”

In addition to the staffing shortages causing three firefighters instead of four in each unit, Mischler said that one of the nearby fire stations, Rescue 7, was technically open, but because of furlough was only half-staffed.

Mischler pointed out:

“The science behind a fire is that it escalates, it doubles in size every 30 seconds.”

Another tragic example of the effects of furloughs was found in a deadly house fire in the Central City neighborhood in November. The fire destroyed two homes and killed one person. Mischler said the outcome would have been different had the furloughs not been in effect.

Mischler explained that under the furlough, the fire department must close stations when staffing falls below a certain level. When the Central City fire broke out, Engine 16 was out of service. The engine was only six blocks from the fire. 

Mischler said having Engine 16 out of service delayed the response to the deadly fire:

“It definitely could’ve made a difference. You’re looking directly down the street, it’s a straight shot to where the fire was. 

“We’re estimating probably a two-minute response time to get to that fire instead of six. In a job where every second counts, four minutes is a huge difference that could mean life or death for anyone.”

Mischler said he understands the city needs to deal with a difficult financial situation caused by the pandemic, but public safety should not be placed on the chopping block:

“Looking through the capital budget where they’re spending $3 million to revitalize Lincoln Beach when people are dying in fires and crime is out of control, I think priorities need to be revisited.”

It took 55 firefighters to extinguish the Central City fire. That left 36 firefighters to cover the rest of the city.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell has denied that the furloughs are significantly impacting public safety, saying:

“The data doesn’t show at all that services and the quality of services has been downgraded.”

The New Orleans Fire Fighters Association (NOFFA) disagrees. The group issued a statement on their Facebook page addressing the impact:

“Mayor Cantrell says the data doesn’t support what we keep seeing and reporting to you. What we’re saying can’t possibly be true, she would have us and you, believe. 

“Her spokesman, Beau Tidwell, refers to the closing of multiple engine companies per day as designed for ‘minimal impact.’”

The NOFFA concluded the statement reacting to Tidwell’s comments:

“Maybe he chose the right words, after all. Because what we’re realizing is that, cut to the bone and beyond, we’re starting to have minimal impact on stopping the progress of a house fire and loss of life.”

NOFFA has been publishing station closures daily on its Facebook page. December 10th, the post read:

“Treme, Black Pearl, Gert Town, Broadmoor, University area, Leonidas, Carrollton area, Hollygrove: Your safety is at risk today (Thu Dec 10)! Furloughs by the bureaucrats at City Hall have placed your safety in jeopardy.

“Ladder 7 on South Carrollton IS CLOSED FOR THE 6th DAY IN A ROW! Rescue 7 on Basin, IS CLOSED FOR THE 3rd DAY IN A ROW! Call Mayor LaToya Cantrell at (504) 658-4900 and your councilmember and demand NO FURLOUGHS FOR PUBLIC SAFETY!”

With temperatures across the city plunging and an increased fire risk due to the use of electric and gas heaters, NOFFA is concerned this will lead to an increased risk of fire-related deaths due to slowed response times.

Mischler summed up the situation. He says that despite the city administration’s claims, the citizens are not safe:

“I don’t know what data they’re looking at. They’re lying to the citizens saying they’re safe.”


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