Report Critical of IN Fire Department

The Kokomo Fire Department is understaffed compared to peer cities in the state and does not have a vehicle replacement and strategic or operational plan in place, according to a report completed by an outside accounting and consulting firm.

The Kokomo Fire Department would need to employ 96 full-time firefighters to be more in line with “peer” departments, according to a nearly 50-page “Financial Assessment & Benchmarking Report” obtained by the Tribune. Crowe LLP, a Chicago-headquartered accounting and consulting firm with an Indianapolis office, completed the report.

As of late last week, KFD had 89 firefighters, the max allowed under the city’s 2022 budget.

For the report, Crowe LLP used Anderson, Columbus, Elkhart and Jeffersonville fire departments as Kokomo’s “peer” communities; the five cities are all similar in population, with Jeffersonville at the lowest at 47,932 and Kokomo at the highest at 58,066.

STAFFING

The report found that despite Kokomo having the highest population among its peer communities, it budgeted on average 4.5% less for its fire department. For example, while KFD had approximately 75% more runs than Jeffersonville in 2021, its budget is 4% larger and has fewer firefighters — Kokomo’s 89 to Jeffersonville’s 92.

Staffing at KFD has been in a steady decline since 2008 when former Mayor Greg Goodnight’s administration took office and began personnel cuts amidst The Great Recession. In 2008, the department had 121 firefighters. In 2019, Goodnight’s last year in office, KFD averaged 84 firefighters on staff.

That number has begun to swing upward under current Kokomo Mayor Tyler Moore’s administration, but staffing remains the top issue facing the fire department, and it’s likely to remain that way come budget time because of this report.

The report, which has been shared with KFD, Professional Firefighters of Kokomo Local 396 and Kokomo City Council members, comes on the heels of the City Council having to transfer $590,990 last year from various funds to the fire department’s overtime fund to cover increased costs accrued in 2021.

In total, the city spent $1,090,239 in KFD overtime in 2021, its highest amount in recent years. Overtime spending has been increasing every year since 2016.

A number of reasons went into the excess overtime spending in 2021, KFD Fire Chief Chris Frazier explained to the City Council late last year.

According to Frazier, the department lost over 100 manpower days to COVID-19 time off between Jan 1 and Nov 8, 40 hours of which was due to the death of Marty Meyers.

Additionally, part of the lost manpower hours were caused by an increase in firefighters undergoing planned surgeries in 2021 because they were delayed in 2020 due to the pandemic and delayed training.

While staffing levels have affected KFD’s overtime spending, it has also negatively affected the amount of training the department does.

According to the report, KFD has “deferred training expenses and spent less on training than its peers in recent years.”

Specifically, between 2016 and 2021, KFD did not spend its full budgeted amount, leaving, on average, $12,125 unspent.

The training budget and expenditures have significantly increased the last two years — $47,350 in 2020 and $69,904 in 2021 — compared to $15,250 in 2019 and $17,250. While spending on training has also significantly increased the last two years at $30,044 spent in 2020 and $37,606 spent in 2021, it was still below budgeted amounts by a notable amount.

EQUIPMENT

While the fire department believes staffing is its biggest challenge, there’s another that it faces: replacing aging equipment.

The city brokered a deal with Center Township last year that included the Kokomo Fire Department servicing the township’s unincorporated areas in exchange for the township buying a new rescue truck for the city and paying the city $80,000 a year, roughly the cost of one firefighter.

The city purchased a new fire engine last year for $693,831 and plans to use the $80,000 annual payment to make payments on the new fire engine. The new engine will replace station no. 2’s 2004 International tanker pumper.

While the city has found a way to replace some of its oldest fire trucks through the agreement with Center Township, it does not have an official equipment replacement plan.

One of the suggestions from Crowe in its report summary is for the city to establish an equipment replacement plan for the fire department so that old equipment is replaced.

According to the report, the average age of KFD’s active vehicles is 11 years and 13 years for active engines. Average mileage is 54,062 and 59,179, respectively.

The report also suggests the city develop a 3- to 5-year strategic operational plan, including budgets for staffing, capital equipment replacement, training and more.

City Controller Wes Reed said the city has begun working with the fire administration to come up with a multi-year equipment replacement plan.

OFFICIALS REACT

The report came as no surprise to officials in both the city administration and fire department and union as KFD staffing and the department’s aging equipment have been public issues the past several years.

The city commissioned the report to serve as a way to set a “benchmark” for future budget processes and planning, Reed told the Tribune in an interview last week.

“We knew there were issues in this (fire) department and police as well in terms of staffing, so we really just wanted a good, hard benchmark for where do we need to be,” Reed said, adding that a similar report was conducted for the Kokomo Police Department in 2019. “We’re not treating the study like the Bible, but we’re treating it like a good starting point.”

Reed said the city is committed to reaching the 96-person mark, though when that will happen is unclear. The city has a healthy $24 million cash balance, but Reed said it’s important for the city to balance between remaining financially healthy while also juggling needs in other city departments.

That said, Reed stressed staffing would remain the top priority for the fire department, followed by replacing aging equipment and additional fire services, such as the possibility of bringing back the city’s ambulance service. The latter is not in the cards until staffing increases.

“We’re restricted each year on how much our growth is so we wanted to be able to build a better bridge between the needs in the department and our budget process to make sure we are getting the most out of the budget and the most out of the efficiency of the department,” he said. “But we have to be committed (to increasing staffing). Ninety-six keeps our guys safe.”

Adam Shaffer, vice president of Professional Firefighters of Kokomo Local 396, called the report “very positive” for the fire department in the sense that the union feels it correctly highlights the needs of the fire department.

“It showed what we kinda already knew,” Shaffer said. “As far the 96 number, all I can tell you is we’ve been meeting with the city and fire administration, and it’s in a planning process right now as to the best way to get there.”

Tyler Juranovich can be reached at 765-454-8577, by email at tyler.juranovich@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter at @tylerjuranovich.

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