We sat here at the front of the station and we could see the smoke and flames and we weren't able to go. And it was really hard on the morale of the firefighters because that's what they're here for. That's what they live for and train for. —Tooele Army Depot Fire Chief Dan Dow
TOOELE — Tooele Army Depot Fire Chief Dan Dow could see the smoke rising from the nearby burning houses as he stood next to a garage filled with some of the best fire trucks in the county.
But he was unable to do anything about the fires.
His hands were tied by a federal furlough that went into effect the day before that restricts his department from responding to any incident off of Depot property — even if the emergency is right down the street as it was on July 9 when two nearby homes were ablaze.
"We sat here at the front of the station and we could see the smoke and flames and we weren't able to go. And it was really hard on the morale of the firefighters because that's what they're here for. That's what they live for and train for," Dow said Wednesday.
The two-alarm fire that day destroyed two houses near the corner of 740 South and 780 West. Because of the intensity of that fire, Dow doesn't know if the outcome would have been any different even if his crew had been allowed to go to the scene to assist.
But they wish they would have at least been allowed to give it a shot.
"It's really disheartening for me and the firefighters that work for me because they're trained and ready to go and it's in their nature to want to help. And knowing that we're not able to provide that anymore is just real disheartening," he said.
The entire Tooele Army Depot began a furlough on July 8 as a result of budget sequestration, which mandates across-the-board cuts in government spending. It is expected to last until Oct. 1. All 600 civilian employees are affected, said Depot spokeswoman Kathy Anderson.
For the fire department, it means the staff was cut from 29 to 27 firefighters. And every afternoon at 3 p.m., Dow is forced to send three to four firefighters home early. That leaves him with a bare minimum of four firefighters on duty each shift at each of the base's two stations, located 22 miles apart.
Because of the staffing levels, Dow said he sent an email to city and county officials in Tooele explaining that his crew would no longer be able to assist with any calls — including fires, traffic accidents and medical calls — that occur off of the Army base property.
"The fire department has to man their post. Their main mission is to support our ammunition operations. And with the type of missions we do out there, it takes fire department support everyday," Anderson said.
But even training and fire prevention operations on base are affected by the furlough. Dow said there have been times a training exercise had to be stopped because the fire department had to send people home for the day, mid-drill.
"We're not able to meet our training requirements that we do and our fire protection and prevention inspections we do on post," Dow said.
The Tooele Army Depot Fire Department has had five mutual aid agreements with other departments in place for 30 years, Dow said. An estimated 38 percent of their calls for help prior to the furlough came from off-base, Dow said. Since July 8, Dow can count at least 16 incidents when his crew was needed to respond to an emergency — and could have likely been the first unit to arrive at many of them — but could not go.
The city and county fire departments in Tooele consist of volunteers. The Tooele Army Depot Department is the only local department that has a fire station fully staffed around the clock.
Bucky Whitehouse, assistant Tooele City fire chief and Emergency Services director for Tooele County, said his volunteer firefighters "will continue with what the job requires us to do." But admits their mutual aid partner will be missed.
"They have a significant amount of equipment that is vital to a lot of the rural areas and even Tooele City," he said. "When we have the instances (like the double house fires) it sure would be nice to have the closest agency with the most training and capability available to respond to help us."
Because of their position on the south end of the county, Depot firefighters used to typically be the first to respond on ATV and motorcycles crashes in Five Mile Pass or on the south end of Highway 36. During the furlough, both Dow and city officials fear an ATV accident victim may have to wait an additional 20 minutes before emergency help can arrive.
The Depot Fire Department also has the only platform fire apparatus in the area.
"If we ever have a fire in a warehouse out there, having them be able to respond and assist us with a large, structural arch building with that platform would be really essential to us being able to handle the problem," Whitehouse said. "They are our closest sister agency to Tooele City. And they are usually Tooele City's first line of request for mutual assistance."
Dow said the federal furlough situation has not only been personally tough on firefighters, but professionally frustrating as well.
"It's not allowing us to respond off-post like we used to, and support our communities with the mutual aid agreements that are in place," he said. "We count on their mutual aid back to us as well, and so it's hard to say, 'We can't scratch your back, but we might need you to come in and scratch ours.'"
Furthermore, an estimated 80 percent of the Depot's workforce lives in Tooele County, adding to firefighters' frustrations of not being able to help their own community.
"It is what it is, and we'll just be glad when it's over and we're able to get back into our normal business and routine and assist our neighbors," Dow said.