As the United States increases troop buildup overseas in anticipation of a war with Iraq, many more of the country's military reservists are being called away from their civilian jobs as emergency responders, leaving fire and law enforcement departments across the nation open to staff shortages.
Many of the nation's fire chiefs believe those vacancies could adversely affect public safety, according to a survey by the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
But the work force of Cape Girardeau County's firefighters and peace officers doesn't appear to be in danger of a significant thinning out, at least not yet.
Cape Girardeau master firefighter Larry Hagan, 41, knows he could be activated any time by his Naval Reserve construction battalion. He has spent 22 years in the military and 17 years as a city firefighter.
"It does tend to create a little bit more of a workload on everybody else when you're called up," Hagan said. "At the fire scene, that addition of one more man can mean a great deal when you're talking about preserving a life or property. One man can make a world of difference."
Preparing for loss
The IAFC received 1,271 responses to its survey, e-mailed in January. Fire chiefs were asked how many of their personnel were in the military reserves and what those reservists' roles were in their departments.
Most departments were aware of how a major reserve call-up might affect them and knew who might be called and what duties would need to be transferred. More than half of the respondents said they would lose up to 5 percent of their staff. Many already have developed response plans to staffing challenges.
The Jackson Fire Department has two members awaiting word on their reserve status. Capt. Steve Grant is in the Army National Guard and firefighter Andrew Juden is a member of the Air National Guard. Because Jackson has 11 full-time firefighters and 19 part-time members, any extra work created by having two members gone can be made up with relatively few work-shift changes, chief Brad Golden said.
Cape Girardeau police saw patrolman Randy Zimmerman exit in January to serve with the Army Reserve. Scheduling around his absence hasn't put a strain on the department, said patrolman Jason Selzer. Cpl. Zeb Williams is a member of the Army National Guard, but has not been activated at this time.
Jackson police have one officer in the Air National Guard. Patrolman Darrell Sievers recently returned from serving a year in Afghanistan, said department spokesman Lt. James Humphreys. Sievers likely won't be called up again anytime soon.
The Cape Girardeau Sheriff's Department has no members enlisted in the military reserves, Capt. Ruth Ann Dickerson said.
Three other members of the Cape Girardeau Fire Department have already been activated by the military. If Hagan is also called up, the department will be short one firefighter per squad, interim chief Mark Hasheider said.
Financial considerations play a part in the solutions, Hasheider said. The department is considering lowering the minimum number of crew members per shift from 15 to 14, and some temporary promotions were made to fill the void. While firefighters' vacation times were not affected, at least one salaried captain postponed his vacation to prevent overtime pay from escalating.
Despite any staffing losses the department undergoes, public safety is the top priority.
"Our No. 1 goal is providing fire and medical service within the city," Hasheider said. "Our second concern is conducting fire inspections and making sure those happen with as little interruption as possible."
While the reservists' jobs are protected, the department did use the retirement of two other firefighters to hire new staff in the interim.
Firefighter Michael Allen is scheduled to return in November from helicopter training in the Army National Guard in Alabama. Fire marshal Mike Morgan recently left for California and is readying for deployment to Guam with the Naval Reserve, Hasheider said.
Fire inspector and public education officer Sam Welker, 49, leaves Thursday for a 17-day rotation tour in Panama with his Army National Guard engineering battalion to build schools and clinics. Welker has been a Guard member since 1973 and a firefighter with Cape Girardeau for 25 years.
"In the fire service, we're all one huge family," he said. "There's a certain amount of kidding and joking you have to take, but the guys have the utmost respect for our serving with the Reserves. Not a day goes by that they don't ask me, 'What's your status?'"
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