Proposed closing of Fire Station 4 will bring more harm than good

Maddie Coyle, Staff Writer

On Oct. 8, Evanston announced its 2019 proposed budget. The city has a $7.4 million deficit, which prompted the decision to make many serious cuts, one being the closing of fire station 4. They are also removing five police positions and cutting the public health budget in half. These reductions will greatly affect the city of Evanston, specifically the cuts regarding the fire department.

The cuts to the fire department can prompt larger issues that will overall affect the city. The four other stations would have to pick up the work that station 4 would have handled so they can have the same level of service. According to Evanston Fire Chief Brian Scott, there would be a general increase in response times across the city, something he called the ‘cascade effect.’ Fire calls increase every year and with cuts to their department, we would be putting countless lives at risk to fix a budget deficit that would only slightly lessen with the closing of station 4. We need to take into account if we are willing to risk lives to slightly help a deficit.

Station 4 is located in the 2nd ward and is the only station protecting the southwest side of the city. Stations 1 and 2 would be the most likely candidates to take over station 4’s response district which creates a problem because stations 1 and 2 are the busiest and response times would increase if they were already on another call. The current average response time for the city of Evanston Fire Department (EFD)  is 3 minutes and 15 seconds but the closing of Station 4 would increase in response times by about 50%.

“I think it may have a general increase across the city because of something I am referring to as the ‘cascade effect’ which means if you close one fire station and that engine is decommissioned, other stations will have to take up a call volume that the fire stations were originally was able to handle,” says Evanston Fire Chief, Brian Scott. “You’ll get other companies responding from further away as they try to handle the increased workload.”

The EFD is the busiest fire department on the North Shore. If all of the stations in Evanston are busy, then Skokie stations would have to answer the call. However, the Skokie station closest to the Station 4 area is one of the busiest Skokie stations and they have a duty to their own primary response district in Skokie. Evanstonians then would not have the same degree of service within their own community and we would be pulling resources away from neighboring communities.

If the city decided to approve this budget, we would be risking the lives of Evanstonians. The people who live in the 2nd ward and the southwest side of the city would be at an extreme loss. The closing of station 4 would increase response times and the removing of nine positions will impact the number of people needed to fight a fire.

“You are closing an entire fire station. That is the consequence of losing nine positions. You have three firefighters at that station each shift. That station closes, there is a significant decrease in the level of service provided. It’s one thing to justify decreasing a level of service when there is less demand, but it is the opposite now, there is more demand. It continues to increase every year,” says former EFD chief Greg Klaiber.

City manager Wally Bobkiewicz had a few reasons that he felt were significant enough to close station 4: it is the smallest station, in a residential neighborhood, and needed restoration and renovation.  

“In an extremely difficult budget situation, we had to evaluate all options, including reductions to police and fire, which in previous budget deficits had not seen any cuts,” says assistant city manager Erika Storlie.

However, some of the reasons for closing are not that valid.

In 2014, the city spent $150,000 on station 4 to make improvements. The city does not need to do anything significant at this point, they can hold off major work with the associated capital costs and focus on maintenance instead, according to former EFD chief Greg Klaiber.

With the city’s large deficit, there was bound to be some budget cuts. However, the safety of the people of Evanston is unacceptable to compromise. There are other ways to help fix the budget problems in the city.

“The large deficit is a very significant one. I think all departments need to have a rigorous evaluation of the services they provide and I am committed to working with the city council in any way possible to help with the budget and try my best to maintain service levels to the community at the same time,” says Scott.

To fix the budget deficits along with keeping the fire station open, there needs to be some rigorous examination within each of the departments, including fire and police departments. Those two departments have not been significantly cut down because of their importance in protecting our city, that can be problematic. If there are not significant cuts within each of the stations we could be looking at detrimental effects; then we will have situations like this where we have to close an entire station to make up for the lack of cutting in previous years.

While there has been backlash throughout the city, the Evanston Firefighters Local #742, the board of Evanston firefighters, has been adamant about the station staying open. They have yard signs that have been given to citizens across the city, have talked at council meetings and have written multiple Facebook posts that call out the mistake that is the station closure.

We work in a profession where seconds and minutes matter; the consequence of a proposal like this is that people will unnecessarily suffer,” says Local 742 president William Lynch. “Compromising public safety to balance a budget is bad business. It is irresponsible and inconsiderate of the needs of the City’s residents. Local 742 stands united in our stance against the proposed cuts to the Fire Department. We will collectively continue to make our voices heard and fight in solidarity to maintain our much needed daily staffing and response plan.”

While fixing the city’s budget issues is important, the city’s safety is much more important. Are we willing to put people’s lives in danger just to fix the budget deficit in our city?