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Fire safety chief raises concerns about vacancies

Vacancies in high-ranking positions in the Buffalo Fire Department are creating a safety issue for firefighters, according to the department’s chief of health and safety.

Just a week after the Common Council approved $4.1 million in settlements with the families of two firefighters who perished in a 2009 fire, James LaMacchia, chief of health and safety, warned lawmakers that the department’s large number of new firefighters are not receiving the supervision they need.

“My concern is that this is a liability issue, first and foremost, to the safety of our firefighters,” he said. “Secondly, it’s a huge liability to the city.”

Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. disagreed that the lack of promotions is affecting health and safety.

“There are legitimate reasons why the promotions have not occurred,” Whitfield said in a statement. “More importantly, there has been no impact on firefighter safety, as all shifts are being covered. We continue to review and monitor the situation and will take action as necessary.”

LaMacchia stressed the importance of the kind of training that happens on the job, after the formal training is over, and said more than 140 new firefighters have been hired since 2009.

The department’s 30 vacancies in supervisory positions have caused younger firefighters to assume more duties and prevented consistent leadership to address training needs on each shift, he said.

Firefighters who have trained for supervisory positions are waiting to be appointed, he said.

“It’s like anything else, once you learn how to do something ... if you don’t do it, you lose it,” LaMacchia said. “They need to put those practices to work.”

The department’s chief of training, responsible for writing curriculum, has been vacant since last year, he said.

Federal workplace safety investigators wanted to know about the training records of the officers and firefighters involved following the 2009 fatal fire, he said.

The settlement with firefighters’ families included the city’s commitment to stronger safety practices. Though the department has made changes, the union representing firefighters is concerned that a requirement for an accountability officer, dedicated to knowing the whereabouts of each member of the crew at serious fires, has not been followed. Other positions unfilled include lieutenants and battalion chiefs.

“The absence of promotions at this point is pretty much unprecedented,” said LaMacchia, a 27-year department veteran.

The city has not promoted firefighters to more-senior titles since August 2011, said Thomas P. Barrett, vice president of Buffalo Professional Firefighters Association.

Barrett, who appeared with LaMacchia at the Council’s Civil Service Committee meeting this week, told lawmakers the city could save an estimated $200,000 in overtime costs by promoting firefighters to long-vacant senior titles.

The vacancies lead to an increase in overtime costs, as higher-ranking – and higher-earning – department members work more to cover shifts, Barrett said.