Some Lexington firefighters say brownouts, that could start next month, pose a public safety risk and any time one happens, they'll make their voices heard.
"I guess they're willing to save money and put the citizens' safety at risk," says Lieutenant Chris Bartley.
Bartley says staffing at the Lexington Fire Department is set to drop by about 40 next month due to retirements. With budget cuts eliminating the possibility of hiring new firefighters, he says some equipment will be understaffed.
"With the city not planning to hire anybody the departments are going to be so low on staff that they're going to have to brown out companies. It's going to happen all over the city and every district on a rotation basis," he says.
That means some vehicles, like engines or ladder trucks, may go out of service periodically.
"In response, the local has got some signs that were made that will go in front of the stations and tell the citizens that this engine or ladder has been closed for the day," he says.
That sign also has another message. It says to call Mayor Jim Gray to find out why. Bartley says the fire department has already made efforts to reign in spending and further cuts should come from somewhere else.
Lexington's Commissioner of Pubic Safety, Clay Mason, said it would be illegal, under the city’s ethics ordinance, for the fire union to post signs concerning so-called brownouts on fire equipment or fire stations.
The signs are misleading and nothing more than scare tactics, Mason said. “The city routinely takes pieces of fire equipment out of service temporarily, to allow for training and other activities. Sometimes a brown-out is a matter of a few hours or a single shift. And there are back-up stations nearby. In making decisions to temporarily take equipment out of service, public safety is always top priority.”
Mason says it was understood, during the budget process and collective bargaining, that cost-saving measures would have be implemented to avoid layoffs. He says the use of brownouts as a cost savings measure was discussed and it was made clear that an increase in the use of this procedure was a real possibility during the fiscal year. “With an unusually large number of retirements, and large pay-outs that accompany those retirements, this possibility became reality,” Mason said. “To suggest this action is a surprise is unprofessional.”
“No one likes brown-outs or increasing health care costs or many of the cuts we’ve had to make,” Mason said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s OK for the fire union to scare the public and post illegal signs on city equipment or buildings.”
Firefighters say the last time brownouts happened was in 2009 and shortly after, new firefighters were hired to bring staffing levels up.