Loss of First Responders to Military Service Hurts Communities

Thousands of cops, firefighters, and EMTS have been deployed to Iraq.

February 9, 2009, 8:27 PM

June 18, 2007 — -- When William "Bill" Bailey III's flag-draped coffin was brought home to Bellevue, Neb., two weeks ago, hundreds of mourners came out to honor the town's native son.

Towering over the crowd gathered to mourn Bailey was an enormous American flag, held up by two ladder trucks from town's volunteer fire department. After the service, his casket was placed in a fire engine and escorted in a procession to the Bellevue cemetery.

In addition to being a beloved husband, father and hunter, Bailey was a firefighter.

"We're a close-knit family, so it definitely has an impact on us. He'll be missed," said Bellevue fire chief Dale Tedder.

In addition to several other firefighters who have been deployed to Iraq, Bailey's absence put some pressure on the fire department, the largest in the state. "What it does is that when there are very aggressive calls to answer, then you miss that person," says Tedder. "You're always depending on that person and they're not there."

Thousands of communities like Bellevue across the country have been affected by the military deployment of their local firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians. Although official numbers are difficult to collect, 24,000 police officers have been deployed overseas since 9/11, according to Reuters. Of the 43,722 individuals in the Selected Reserve who could be categorized as first responders (police officers, detectives, firefighters, EMTs, and ambulance drivers), about 10 percent of them (4,382) are currently mobilized, according to the Pentagon.

In some communities, 10 percent to 15 percent of the police and fire departments have been called up for duty, and chiefs have had to hire more part-time staffers, bill for overtime and make do with less to fulfill their obligations. In some cases, the staffing issues are directly affecting the essential services communities receive.

In Fargo, N.D., for example, 15 to 18 of the police department's 125 officers were overseas after being called up for duty in the National Guard. "We're barely able to keep our heads above water," said Chief Keith Ternes. "We continue to provide high-quality police services but just at a bare minimum."

Last year, the rapidly growing city experienced a 12 percent increase in overall crime, largely due to a spurt in property crimes such as burglaries and robberies. "I won't say it's exclusively due to the department missing those who were called up for duty, but I don't think there's any question that part of that would or should be addressed by having those extra officers here and available to work," said Chief Ternes.

Currently, the department is missing only four officers, three of whom are due back in August.

In the tiny police department of Wilmington, Vt., even the loss of one police officer can have an impact. "He was killed in Iraq and that was devastating for us," said Chief Joseph Szarejko of Mark H. Dooley, an Army lieutenant who died in September 2005 in an insurgent bomb attack in Iraq. "It's devastating to a small department. We have eight officers, five of whom are full-time; so, without one of our full-time officers, we really had to shuffle. It's when disaster happens that you really have to scramble."

On occasion, the fire department in Grand Blanc, Mich., has had to activate all three of its stations to respond to fires and emergencies. The department has lost three firefighters to military duty and that has had an impact on a small staff of five full-time and 50 part-time firefighters.

"It's a concerning issue," said Chief James Harmes, the current president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. "And that doesn't show the amount of money we've put into training them. That's an unknown figure. We're hearing these stories all over the country. It throws things off, makes things more difficult," he said.

Harmes believes that first responders are a natural fit for military service. "A lot of the military are in police or fire services. They're so patriotic to this country. I'm very proud of these firefighters for what they give up for their country, risking it all."

And he's glad to get them back safe when they're done with their service, relieved that one of his firefighters recently returned. "I was so glad to see him back after a seven-month stint, a nine-month stint and a 13-month stint," said Harmes. "He's a little thin but he's fine."

Billy Goldfeder, a deputy chief at Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in southwestern Ohio, maintains firefighterclosecalls.com, a Website dedicated to firefighter safety that chronicles those who've been killed at war. He's not surprised that so many firefighters happen to be military reservists.

"It's part of the personality, that idea of service to your community, your country," he says. "It's sort of in the genes. And it's been tough on many departments. There have been several substantial losses of firefighters killed at war. Not only are they people who are destined to serve but in many cases they provide leadership roles -- there's another gap," he said.

The deployment of correctional officers who get called up for duty has also affected jails around the country. In Texas, about 221 officers are currently on active military duty. Although it's not a big share of the state's 23,000 correctional officers, it has had a direct impact on some facilities.

"Some facilities are below what we'd like," said Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Corrections. "It's not exactly understaffed but those are 221 people we dearly miss. And right now is a tough time to hire correctional officers," he added.

For now, fire chief Tedder in Bellevue, Neb., is looking forward to the return of the last remaining member of his crew still deployed in Iraq.

"They're two brothers who were deployed," he says. "One of the brothers is back and I'm waiting for the other one. We need him."

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