Exclusive: ‘No cuts’ Ohio chief speaks out on dismissal

Editor’s Note: Earlier this month, Ohio Fire Chief Donald Barnes was dismissed after balking at orders from his mayor to make a new round of cuts in the fire department’s budget. The Shaker Heights Fire Department had already been forced to shed four firefighters earlier this year. But when Chief Barnes was then told to slash $250,000 from the department’s budget and lose more positions, he refused. The Chief of seven years was subsequently dismissed by Mayor Earl Leiken. In this exclusive interview with FireRescue1, Chief Barnes speaks publicly for the first time on the dismissal, his fears for other departments in the current economic climate and his plans for the future.

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Did you believe your stance would result in what eventually happened to you? Do you have any regrets?

Sometimes doing the right thing is the most difficult decision you will make in your life. I regret having impacted my family, but lives that we swore to protect cannot be put in jeopardy with my endorsement and acceptance. I would regretfully do the best possible under any conditions, but I cannot be told to endorse and accept them as being safe for our department or our citizens.

When the initial cuts were made earlier this year and the department was forced to lose four firefighters, how did they impact the department’s operations and how concerned were you at those cutbacks?

The four firefighters’ positions along with two officers’ positions through attrition (total of six lost) has reduced on-duty staffing from 16 to 14. These reductions total just under $1 million in previous reductions from the past five years including the loss of a Lieutenant position and part-time secretary along with reductions in most line items. The two officers’ positions lost in the last layoffs in March were going to be covered during the daytime hours by the Assistant Chiefs when available and overtime would be used for evening and weekend fills. This would allow for staffing at 14 and still would put us at the minimum 1710 requirement for the initial response. Any future reductions would take us under the standard and result in lack of adequate staffing and company officers on apparatus.

What was your reaction when the mayor first told you they wanted these new cutbacks?

Concern that we would not be able to maintain current staffing levels for emergency responses and that the Fire Prevention Bureau composed of one inspector/fire safety specialist and Assistant Chief would be greatly hampered, if not decimated.

In the letter you wrote to the Mayor last month, you said, “I just can’t professionally or morally do what you have instructed without jeopardizing the health, safety and welfare of our residents and our firefighters.” Can you expand upon those points and the impact they would have had on firefighters and residents?

I was instructed to abolish one Assistant Chief position and the Inspector position, make a plan to deal with these cuts and take ownership of the cuts publically. As stated previously, the abolishment of an Assistant Chief and Inspector would result in the reduction of fire inspections and fire education programs.

Short-term effects might not be realized with the reductions to the Prevention Bureau. However, long-term effects with reduced or eliminated preventive efforts would impact health and safety of both residents and firefighters. The elimination of the six positions in March left the department at the minimum staffing level of 14. Using the two Assistants to offset officer shortages due to the reductions reduced the immediate impact of not being able to maintain staffing levels with current overtime dollars and elimination of two officer positions.

Can you expand further on what cuts the mayor specifically wanted? The original newspaper report on your dismissal said Leiken suggested cutting an Assistant Chief and a nonunion Fire Inspector. What concerns did you have about cutting those posts?

As I said before, the department has one Assistant Chief of Operations and an Assistant Chief of the Fire Prevention Bureau (many cities call this position Fire Marshal). Our department also has a full-time, 40-hour Inspector that handles all of the commercial inspections, systems tests and plans reviews along with the assistance of the Chief of the Fire Prevention Bureau. The Inspector is also trained in juvenile fire-setter counseling and arson investigation. Reductions in two out of these three positions besides impacting staffing levels would result in loss of fire code enforcement and also programs in fire education. Without continued preventive and education measures, property and citizens will be endangered.

How concerned are you at the cutbacks that departments are facing across the country and what can you see happening because of them?

Looking back at history, fire departments were established long before any other municipal departments within a city or community. A method for protecting property and lives from fire is not a service, it is a necessity. The preservation of property and the protection of lives come before all other services a municipality or community may provide. All other services come after fire and police protections are provided, otherwise the additional services mean nothing.

I am convinced that the citizens of Shaker would support a philosophy that supports the effective fire department rather than an ineffective fire department, even if it meant losing other services. There are many non-critical areas to cut before making your fire department ineffective and/or unsafe.

I feel that each community is unique and individual in the associated levels of risks and demands. Every leader needs to utilize the tools that are available to them to analyze the impacts of reductions in this economic climate. Being fiscally responsible should not sacrifice providing a safe level of service to the public.
Look at 1710, analyze ISO if accredited, review your standards of response document and your risk hazard analysis document, review your department’s statistical call data and finally reach deep inside and go with what your instincts and experience have taught you.

When you look back on your term as Chief, what memories do you have, what are you most proud of and what frustrates you most about has happened?

I have always tried to look at short-term and long-term impacts that will result by my and others’ decisions. I am proud that I was able to lead the men and women of the Shaker Heights Fire Department and serve the citizens of Shaker Heights by providing safe and professional emergency services.

What kind of reaction have you had from people within the department and from across the country since what happened?

Interdepartmental reaction I have heard has been shock and concern for the future. Support has been for the most part positive.

What are the next steps you hope to take?

Getting reinstated and protecting the firefighters and citizens of our community.

Story by:  FireRescue1.com

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