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DIGGING DEEPER: Cost savings lengthen Peoria fire department response times

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PEORIA (WEEK) - When your house is on fire, you need an immediate response, but the problem now in Peoria is you could be waiting a bit longer.

Late last year, the city voted to save money but shutting down Station 8 on Hurlburt Street near downtown.

Documents requested by 25 News show the total response for all fire department units responding in Station 8 and Station 4 territories. The National Fire Protection Association recommends a 10:20 total response time. But, our numbers show it’s taking longer for firefighters in these territories to answer the call.

In 2020, before Station 8 was shut down, the overall response time was 11:23. For Station 4 it was 9:19, and Station 8 was 9:59.

In 2021, the overall time was almost three minutes longer at 14:06, and for Station 4 it jumped to 13:38, roughly a four minute increase.

“It’s a significant increase,” said Chief Jim Bachman, with the Peoria Fire Department. Since budget cuts hit the Department in 2019, they’re also down three fire machines and the 33 firefighters who staffed them, while still responding to 20,000 calls a year.

“The struggle with losing 22 positions, two rescue squads in 2019, and then in 2020, turn around, due to COVID, lose another engine company, that’s 33 positions. That’s three machines, so we’re down from a high of 17 to 14 companies available for response, " Chief Bachman said.

"So certainly, that’s a trickle-down effect. Not only does taking another engine company away from the south side hurt, in fact response times are going to be slower in that area. The fact of the matter is the surrounding companies take on that workload. Engine two, the machine shutdown, responded to well over 2,000 runs a year. That’s being divided up by companies like engine one that are already running 2,000-2,500 runs a year,” the Chief also said.

Bachman they are seeing an increase in fires and demolitions. Ryan Brady with the firefighters union said the increase in demolitions is due to slower response times.

“The jobs are harder. The stuff we see isn’t great, and now you’re being asked to continue to do more with less,” said Brady.

That’s one of the reasons Justin Siekmann said he cut short what he hoped would be a career and resigned from the Peoria Fire Department last August.

"You’re running right against the point where it’s already dangerous with the decisions they’ve made, but to make further decisions to cut personnel, to not make decisions to restore personnel is border-line lunacy,” said Siekmann.

Department faces declining firefighters' morale

Siekmann is one of 10 firefighters who left the department in just the last three years and four months. Chief Bachmann said that numbers alone is troubling.

“I think I can go back 20 years, and not come up with 10 resignations, if you excluded the last two years,” he said.

The chief is also bothered by the number of firefighter injuries - they increased in the years 2019 and 2020, but Chief Bachman said Covid was a main reason in 2020.

Statistics show civilian injuries are also going up. They more than doubled in 2019 and 2020.

“Definitely a little bit of an uptick. I’m hoping it tails off.  We’re seeing an increase in response times, and you’ll have that,” he said.

Civilian Injuries: 2021: 14                                     Firefighter Injuries: 2021: 2

                              2020: 38                                                                          2020: 47

                              2019: 33                                                                          2019: 39

                              2018: 15                                                                          2018: 24

                             2017: 16                                                                            2017: 26

We took these numbers to Mayor Rita Ali and asked her if she was okay with her.

She said, “it’s not okay that injuries increased for firefighters and civilians, that’s never okay,” said Ali.

Just a couple of weeks on the job and Mayor Rita Ali is already facing tough decisions.

“That’s the situation we’re going to improve, certainly. There’s new leadership within council, the city, the new chief. We’re going to work on improving morale. We’re going to work to improve response times. Those are things that are critically important,” said Mayor Ali.

Sixty million dollars will be coming to Peoria and Bloomington through the American Rescue Plan. The fire department expects to get some of that, but Mayor Ali said there are no commitments right now. She said they just got the details and must discuss it with the council.

Some good news though, there’s a recruiting class of 16 new firefighters this summer. The chief said usually they have more than 100 applicants. This year, there’s about 20.

Amber Krycka

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