CLE firefighters union president says department ‘stretched too thin’ as they battled 5 fires

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CLEVELAND-- The Cleveland Division of Fire was on the run all morning long, battling five separate fires across the city, and it has some saying the department is stretched too thin. Fire officials said the fires remained under investigation, and while arson signs were posted at two scenes, there appears to be no connection between them.

A major fire spread through several buildings across a city block at Detroit Avenue and West 75th, near Lake Avenue, after breaking out around 3 a.m. Fire officials said witnesses reported flames starting in one building where a fire occurred two months ago. A barking dog awoke a man and woman living in the upstairs apartment of a neighboring building, who escaped, said Cleveland Fire Department spokesman Larry Gray.

Demolition crews knocked down the buildings, with a section of Detroit Avenue remaining closed until mid-afternoon.

Arson is suspected in a fire that gutted a vacant home on East 79th Street Wednesday morning. Another fire also broke out at K & K Auto Repair on Harvard Avenue just before 8 a.m.

Arson is also suspected after a vacant house burned to the ground on Bayliss Avenue. The fire spread to a neighboring home, causing extensive damage to the home and two vehicles in the driveway.

"I was just in panic. I was frantic. I was like, 'what's going on?' And I look to the right of me and all the windows were orange," victim, Kathryn Clark, said. Neighbors woke Clark and her 2-year-old son, who were sleeping upstairs, just in time to make it out. She said her car and home were engulfed before firefighters arrived.

"We are here every day trying to make sure we keep our city safe. [It was] a very, very taxing night. We've had a majority of our personnel out working most of the night," Gray said, adding the fires impacted 80 percent of the force, whether firefighters were out fighting fires or relocated to fill in at stations.

Frank Szabo, president of the firefighters' union, said it's a prime example of why more firefighters are needed.

"I think that any time that you have more than 50 percent of your fire suppression force handling incidents, you're stretched too thin," he said, adding that staffing levels are at their lowest level since before the year 1900.

Last week, the Fox 8 I-Team revealed the shrinking number of Cleveland firefighters: 166 have left the force since 2012, with just 74 fully joining. An additional 40 firefighters are currently in training.

Szabo urged fire department administrators to hire additional staff and urged the city to implement protocols for calling in firefighters on busy nights.

"When folks are stretched thin, when we're at capacity, there's just not enough available bodies to go around to do the work," Szabo said. "It's not safe for our members; it's not good for the community."

A spokesman for the City of Cleveland provided a statement responding to the union's concerns.

"The staffing level in the Division of Fire allows the Division to fully staff 35 fire suppression, rescue, and medical first responder companies.  These companies provide geographical coverage throughout the city to meet the needs of our community. The Division monitors staffing levels daily to ensure resources are sufficient."

Fire officials said there is concern about increasing fires with the change in season, and urged people to be vigilant and report any suspicious behavior, especially near vacant homes.