Firefighter shortage causing challenges in Lafayette Parish

Courtesy of The Advertiser

Firefighters are being paid to staff fire stations in three rural Lafayette Parish communities because volunteers don’t respond during the day.

But even the city of Lafayette, where taxes are dedicated to firefighters’ salaries, has been struggling for years with a lack of personnel.

The Lafayette Parish communities of Judice, Milton and Duson rely entirely on volunteers to fight fires. But most work full-time jobs during the day and can’t leave to fight a fire, creating a dangerous situation.

Earlier this year, only two firefighters from the Judice Volunteer Fire Department responded during the day to a shed fire that threatened a nearby mobile home and a consultant reported to the Lafayette City-Parish Council recently about the shortage of volunteers in rural communities.

Lafayette Consolidated Government is now paying two firefighters to staff the fire stations in Judice and Milton during the day, and LCG and Duson each are paying a firefighter to staff the Duson station during the day, Lafayette Fire Chief Robert Benoit said.

But the problem isn’t just with volunteers. The city of Lafayette, with a paid, full-time firefighting staff, also is dealing with a shortage of personnel.

“The problem we’ve had the past 20 years is we’ve never had enough personnel,” Benoit said.

When a truck responds to a fire without a full staff, trucks from farther away also are called out to add manpower, Benoit said. With Lafayette’s traffic, it takes them longer to arrive and response time is vital when dealing with fires, he said.

Lafayette received two Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, each covering the salaries of 20 firefighters, Benoit said. The first of the grants just expired.

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“The city now has to pick up the tab 100 percent for those 20 firefighters,” he said.

The city of Lafayette is in the process of building a new fire station on Curran Lane behind Wal-Mart on Ambassador Caffery Parkway. Despite 30 rain delay days, construction is on schedule and completion is expected by the end of July, Benoit said. The station may be in use by September.

When that station opens, creating a new firefighting district, more firefighters and supervisors will be needed, spreading manpower thin again, Benoit said. Ideally, the LFD staff should be 300, but it currently consists of 283, he said.

Plans to build another fire station, on Settlers Trace between Ambassador Caffery Parkway and Camellia Boulevard, are on hold. The new station may not be necessary.

A “massive rating change” is coming, Benoit said. The rule is firefighters should arrive on the scene within three to five minutes at least 90 percent of the time, he said.

Under the proposed performance based response, which ranks a department on response time and personnel, if the last truck arrives within nine minutes it won’t matter where fire stations are located, Benoit said.

“We’ve got to go through a trial period to see if we can make that,” he said. “It depends on how fast trucks get through traffic. It’s a better rating. If we can do it, we’re not going to build it.”

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