By Jacquie Simone
The middle-aged men lounged in chairs, chatting and watching television on a Saturday afternoon. Suddenly, a series of loud beeps and sirens echoed throughout the common room of the Ithaca Fire Department’s central station. Lt. Rob Covert smiled as he and Chris Kourkoutis rushed to the gleaming red fire engine.
“Looks like we’re going for a ride,” Covert said.
Covert and Kourkoutis are two of the 65 members of the Ithaca Fire Department. Recent economic circumstances will bring several changes to the department in the upcoming year, as they submitted a zero percent to the Ithaca Common Council.
One of the most significant implications of the budget is that the fire chief position, which was vacated when Brian Wilbur retired in August after serving as fire chief for 16 years, will not be filled for 2010. Instead, Deputy Fire Chief J. Thomas Dorman will fulfill the fire chief duties until the budget allows for a new chief.
“It’s not going to be an easy year, but I believe we can live with this budget,” Dorman said. “I don’t think it’s going to affect us drastically. I’m much more concerned about 2011 if things don’t straighten out.”
Dorman said he is prepared to take over the fire chief’s responsibilities for the present time, pointing out that there are currently two deputy fire chiefs when there used to be only one.
The Ithaca Fire Department has four stations throughout the city. Under an optimal budget, the force is composed of firefighters, lieutenants, five assistant chiefs, two deputy chiefs and one fire chief. Dorman said that the decision to leave the fire chief position vacant will prevent the department from laying off firefighters, who are represented by the International Association of Fire Fighters union.
The budget was recently submitted to Mayor Carolyn Peterson and the Common Council. The proposed budget requests $9,845,870, with significant decreases in the amount requested for administrative salaries and programs.
Alderperson Deb Mohlenhoff, whose husband has been an Ithaca firefighter for 20 years, said the members of the Common Council appreciate the fire department’s willingness to limit their costs.
“I really admire the fire department for putting the budget together that they did,” Mohlenhoff said. “This year fiscally is going to be very challenging for all municipalities.”
The Ithaca Fire Department has recently tried to limit energy costs by installing high-efficiency lighting with motion sensors and purchasing a hybrid vehicle. However, the fire engines require large amounts of fuel and maintenance despite the department’s efforts to cut costs.
The proposed budget will decrease the amount of money allocated for training programs. In addition to fire calls, the department offers various services to the community, including responding to car and hazardous material accidents and performing rope and water rescue. Preparing for such diverse situations necessitates large expenditures.
“It takes time and money to train people to do these calls,” Mike O’Halloran, an Ithaca firefighter of 4 years, said.
Despite decreased budgets for training and a vacant fire chief position, most members of the department said they would rather accept these changes than risk firefighter layoffs. Assistant Chief Dave Burbank said the Ithaca Fire Department has shown resilience when previously operating under limited budgets. He said that while the 2010 budget will present challenges, the department will not sacrifice efficiency.
“We look at what resources we have available, and we make it work,” Burbank said.