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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

September 19, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

News

Firefighters face cuts while college calls rise

While the Ithaca Fire Department faces budget cuts and decreased personnel because of the proposed 2013 city budget, fire alarm activations reported from Ithaca College this year have seen notable increase.

Tim Ryan, manager for the Office of Environmental Health and Safety at the college, said in 2009, the Office of Public Safety and the Ithaca Fire Department responded to 72 alarms in residential buildings on campus, 81 in 2010 and 86 in 2011. So far in 2012, there have been 116 fire alarm responses — 92 of them accidental alarms — in residential buildings at the college.
When an alarm goes off on campus, Public Safety is required to dispatch officers and alert the fire department. Often, Public Safety will arrive at the scene first and determine that the call was an accident. At that point, however, the fire department is already on en route, Ryan said.
Meanwhile, the City of Ithaca is searching for ways to generate more revenue in the midst of a $3 million deficit. If Mayor Svante Myrick’s proposed 2013 budget is passed Nov. 7, the City of Ithaca Fire Department will lose four of its positions — two through layoffs and two by retirement. Myrick said these changes were necessary to combat the city’s deficit.

“That’s the nature of a government in a time of scarcity,” Myrick said. “Unless a major change happens on a federal level, we can’t expect to see those kinds of resources again.”

Fire Chief Tom Parsons said the department has already had a reduction of about 10 percent of its workforce since 2009 through retirements. There are four Ithaca fire stations, including one on Danby Road near the college. Currently, there are four volunteer firefighters working in Ithaca, in addition to 63 career firefighters. But the number could lower to 59 if the mayor’s budget is passed.

Many at the Ithaca Fire Department say the station is stretched too thin.

“The department is understaffed,” Gary Farwell, vice president of the Ithaca Firefighters Association, said. “There are standards that say you should have 15 firefighters showing up at a fire, and we show up with 11.”

In total, Myrick’s budget would eliminate 25 positions within the city government, including one administrative assistant in the building department and nine positions in the Ithaca Police Department.

The  budget also proposes to consolidate the planning department and the building department to simplify fire code and building inspections. The Fire Prevention Bureau would be eliminated.

“By consolidating those inspections through the building department, we are actually streamlining the process for the consumer,” Myrick said.

But Farwell said the work that the Fire Prevention Bureau does — like conducting fire code inspections — can reduce the number of calls the department receives, which saves time and money for the entire station. Members of the bureau, like Farwell, would return to their positions as shift firefighters.

“Fire prevention is an investment in the safety of everybody in the community,” Farwell said.

Part of the department’s increasing workload comes from emergency calls from the college caused by the new “supervised fire alarm system” installed in the Circle Apartments during the summer, Ryan said. When a fire alarm sounds on campus, Public Safety and the city fire department are both called to the scene.

“We relied on building occupants to call us if there was activation, and nine times out of 10 they probably would not call,” Ryan said. “They would just fan the detector, clear the smoke and the device would clear itself.”

Though the college is located in the Town of Ithaca, the town contracts its fire services to the city.

Senior Rebecca Jacob, who lives in the Circle Apartments, said fire alarms go off several times a month at all times of the day. She said she is concerned that students will become desensitized to the alarms and stop responding.

“I don’t think that there has ever been a real fire,” Jacob said. “The alarms are just too hypersensitive.”

The college installed the new alarm system without gaining input from the fire department, Gillian Haines-Sharp of the Ithaca Fire Prevention Bureau said.

If the Prevention Bureau is eliminated due to budget cuts, the fire department may respond to more alarm activation calls — similar to those at the college — which take up time and department staff, she said.

“If we had a fire downtown and we’re all up there [the college], that could have some serious results,” Haines-Sharp said.

However, the cost of each trip to the college is not clear at this time, she said.

Ryan said the town Codes and Ordinances Committee reviewed and approved the college’s new alarm system in the Circle apartments. He said he has contacted the town to discuss the possibility of finding another option that would bring less calls but maintain safety.

Ithaca Fire Chief Tom Parsons said the department spends much of its time responding to calls from properties that contribute little financially to the city and town.

“Both Cornell and Ithaca College in the past have donated lands for where fire stations are located, but most of the fire protection is funded through the taxpayers of both the city and the town,” Parsons said. “They subsidize the fire protection that Cornell and Ithaca College both get.”

The town receives $70,000 in fire protection fees and $127,000 in water and sewer taxes from the college for the college’s Circle Apartments and four college-owned houses, Carl Sgrecci, vice president of finance and administration, said. The college also pays $203,000 to the Ithaca City School District based on property value of the Circle Apartments and the other houses. These taxes are paid voluntarily, Sgrecci said.

Though the college does not directly fund the city, Anthony Hopson, assistant vice president for community and government relations at the college, said it contributes to the local economy as the region’s second-largest employer. For example, the college has teaching partnerships with Longview, a residential retirement community on South Hill, and campus events that generate revenue for Tompkins County.

“The perception is there that as an organization, we’re here to take away from the community, when in fact, the opposite is actually more true,” Hopson said. “We think that [our] contributions to the region and to the community are quite significant.”

Though both the fire department and city officials agree the reductions are not ideal, Myrick said he believes that the cuts will be sustainable.

“This is not an optimal budget for anyone,” Myrick said. “But is this a budget that we can live with and that we can still deliver frontline services meaning that we can get the firefighters on the scene of a crime? Yes, for sure.”

Parsons said the budget forces the city to compromise its funding on public safety and its public works, youth and business services.

“It’s maybe just a short-term solution for a long-term problem,” Parsons said. “It’s not going away. We’ll be dealing with it for a while.”

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This article was produced in collaboration with 92 WICB.