By Sarah Hogsed
Register News Writer
Blue Grass Army Depot firefighters
are scheduled to begin furloughs Monday despite clear instruction from Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel that such personnel should be exempt to the "extent necessary" to protect life and property.
Hagel issued a memo to the armed forces in May that provided a list of personnel exempt from furloughs. On that list was “employees necessary to protect safety of life and property.”
The fire department at the depot, which houses 500 tons of chemical weapons and regularly detonates and disposes of conventional munitions, already was undermanned, depot sources say.
“I want the community to know because of this, their safety is at risk,” one of the sources said. “... (the community) will be losing their first response for chemical leaks and spills.”
The Register has agreed to not name those who came forward with information about staffing levels because they fear retaliation.
Furloughs that require most federal employees to reduce their hours by 20 percent are being ordered to comply with the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. Most depot employees work four 10-hour shifts a week, according to depot officials.
However, firefighters work 24-hour shifts and regularly get overtime, so planning furlough time off is more complicated, according to sources connected to the department.
The Bluegrass Army Depot typically has seven firefighters per shift, four to operate the fire engine and two to drive the ambulance. This is below the 13 firefighters per shift recommended by the National Fire Protection Association, a safety standard which the federal government is supposed to follow as mandated by Department of Defense policies and federal law.
According to documentation provided to the Register, legal opinions sought by the International Association of Fire Fighters support the union’s assertion that budget sequestration requirements do not supplant the NFPA guidelines and DoD policies. Not following those guidelines may constitute a violation of federal Occupational Safety and and Health Administration standards.
Sources connected to the firefighters said they were told two weeks ago they would not face the 20 percent work reduction. But last week they were told no exemption was coming, and as of Friday, their furlough orders remained in place.
Security staff at the depot were exempted from the furloughs that require all other depot personnel to work only 32, rather than 40 hours a week from July 8 through Sept. 30, depot public affairs officer Mark Henry said Wednesday.
The Army had been in negotiations regarding a furlough exemption for firefighters, Henry said, but he was unsure if the situation would change before Monday.
Calls to Henry’s cell phone Friday and Saturday went unanswered. Depot administrative personnel work four-day weeks and Thursday was a holiday.
Depot fire department staffing levels
In the past, the Blue Grass Army Depot has relied on mutual aid agreements with Richmond and Madison County fire departments to bolster their response numbers. However, with the closure of Richmond Fire Station 5 on Duncannon Lane last year and minimal staffing at Madison County Fire Station 2 at the US 25/421 junction, mutual aid cannot be relied upon to provide adequate manpower, either for the depot or surrounding area, according to depot sources.
Only five firefighters are expected be on shift at the Blue Grass Army Depot when furloughs start Monday, according to depot sources.
“We will not be able to make entry in a fire with five people,” one of the sources said.
Response training for the firefighters follows the “two in, two out” standard. To maintain safety, two firefighters enter a structure fire while two remain outside. The fifth firefighter is the unit commander who must direct operations.
This would not be enough to actively fight a fire with no backup engine available, according to depot sources.
They said the ambulance will have to be parked because not enough personnel will be available to drive it.
Depot firefighters entered into an agreement May 22 with Commanding Colonel Brian L. Rogers that would allow the department to determine how it would implement the furloughs in a manner that would not understaff their response, according to another document provided to the Register.
Colonel Lee Hudson was installed as the new Blue Grass Army Depot commander June 27.
After the fire department was told last week it would not be exempt, a schedule was created in which firefighters were to begin taking furlough time Monday.
Army officials have not said if a furloughs would continue after Sept. 30, but the firefighters fear they are.
Depot fire department provides aid to entire county
Madison County Fire Chief Jim Cox said the depot’s fire department furloughs concern him.
Cox confirmed that county Fire Station 2 averages two certified firefighters per shift, sometimes three. During the school year, Eastern Kentucky University co-op students also will be on duty.
The mutual aid the depot firefighters provide is invaluable, Cox said.
“I depend on them very heavily,” Cox said. “They are a very, very incredible asset.”
While they mainly bolster the county fire departments’ manpower during emergencies, the depot firefighters also have extensive training in handling hazardous material situations.
Just three months ago, depot firefighters were able to identify an unknown hazardous material at the Pilot gasoline station at Exit 95 on Interstate 75 and properly dilute it, Cox said. Depot firefighters are always willing to lend a hand and work outside the depot gates, if they are available, he said.
Cox said the county calls on the depot fire department for mutual aid about 25 times a year, on average.
While the county fire department can provide mutual aid on base in the event of a depot emergency, they would not be the primary responders.
“We would come in and basically be back-up,” Cox said.
Cox is concerned the depot firefighter furloughs could affect the safety of Madison County residents.
“Especially if it comes down to a major incident, it would really concern me,” Cox said. “We depend on them.”
Firefighter union supports furlough exemption
Blue Grass Army Depot firefighters are represented by International Association of Fire Fighters Local 291. IAFF Regional Vice President Jim Johnson has been providing advice and guidance to the personnel in their fight to get a furlough exemption, but the union or its local representatives have not been directly involved in negotiations with depot leadership, he said.
Johnson said the reduced staffing level is not just dangerous for the community but also for the firefighters. Typically, when fighting a fire or other type of incident, firefighters act offensively. However, when manpower drops below minimal levels, they must switch to a defensive strategy.
“It puts (the firefighters) in a quandary,” Johnson said. “They want to put out fires, but even when they don’t have the manpower, they’ll still try to put it out anyway. That’s when they get hurt.”
The federal standard of having 13 firefighters per shift is based on a what is needed to contain a fire in a large home, Johnson said.
“Obviously at the Army depot, we have larger structures than a 2,000-square-foot residential structure,” Johnson said.
The Navy and Marines have exempted their first responders from furlough, but the Army “has been hit or miss,” the union chief said.
“It’s basically coming down to the discretion of the base commander,” Johnson said.
Johnson agreed that the depot and community are being put at risk, especially with the closure of Richmond Fire Station 5 and the low staffing levels at the nearby county fire station.
“There isn’t any resources out there to rely on for a catastrophic event,” Johnson said.
“I’ve never seen a fire department with too much staffing,” Johnson said. “Any time you take away two or three bodies, it’s a big concern.”
Congressman pushes for exemption
U.S. Rep. Andy Barr and his staff have been working since March to convince local depot and Army leadership not to furlough firefighters.
Barr said the Defense Secretary’s memo makes it clear the fire department should not be furloughed.
“They are the best fire department in the entire Army,” Barr said. “We need that kind of talent in place at the depot at all times.”
The last correspondence Barr’s office received from the Secretary of the Army was that the issue was being further examined.
Although the furloughs start Monday, Barr said he wasn’t giving up.
“We have to continue to make the Army aware of this,” he said. “We won’t rest until we get a solution.”
Sarah Hogsed can be reached at email@example.com or 624-6694.