Bristol, VA firefighters facing cuts address city; Council member gets emotional

BRISTOL, VA (WJHL) – An urgent plea by Bristol, Virginia firefighters to save jobs even received public support from outside the Tri-Cities region on Tuesday night.

Andrew Pantelis of the International Association of Firefighters, based in Washington, D.C.,  urged city council members that first responders should be off-limits as they consider where to cut funding for the city budget.

Bristol, VA firefighters stood in solidarity trying to send a clear message to council members that cutting the proposed ten jobs could result in a public safety risk.

“These citizens are going to die. These citizens will die if you reduce our staffing, our personnel, our guys will die,” Mike Wise of the Bristol Fire Fighters Association said.

Firefighters and family members gathered to support one another ahead of Tuesday night’s city council meeting where an option to close a fire station also remains on the table. Council has discussed closing station one in downtown Bristol.

Firefighters and their families, friends gathered alongside the International Association of Firefighters and leaders from the Bristol branch for an afternoon press conference in solidarity, telling media that they all planned to attend the city council meeting. The association had data ready to present to council, data they felt would help council make an informed decision on the potential cuts, showing it is not the right idea.

A retired Bristol firefighter said cuts like these have been discussed for years and he’s devastated to see the council is looking to cut ten positions.

Freddie Wilkinson, retired Bristol, VA firefighter, spoke to News Channel 11 about his concerns.

“It just means a devastated city, talking about running on a skeleton crew. Life is at risk when you go into a burning building,” Freddie Wilkinson, retired Bristol, VA firefighter said.

Andrew Pantelis of the International Association alongside Mike Wise and another representative spent nearly two hours presenting their data that the fire department is already understaffed and that a recent three-year study of the department shows the largest demand is from the fire station that could potentially be closed.

He also presented to council a summary of the fire department and a Geographic Information System study. He added that risk, system demand, system performance and an understanding of the job task needs to be evaluated alongside a measurement of firefighters per 1000 residents in the city and there’s isn’t a one size fits all approach when it comes to staffing.

Bristol, VA has a mutual aid agreement with Bristol, TN. Pantelis said relying exclusively on mutual aid is not recommended because of outside variables that can be outside the city’s control. He added that mutual aid may not be available at times due to calls in their own jurisdiction and those agreements can be abolished if either side feels their resources are being abused and the frequency of the aid isn’t reciprocal.

Pantelis said cuts would drastically reduce response time and could increase fire-related injury or death.

Pantelis added that Bristol, VA’s fire department does not currently comply with current NPFA standards on the number of personnel who should be responding to a fire. Council asked multiple questions of the association, Councilman Doug Fleenor even got emotional seeing firefighters, their families, friends, and citizens in the audience saying he can’t support cutting ten positions and the city should look at other places.

Doug Fleenor

“We don’t need to give $100,000 to someone for tourism, we need to give someone to the people who are going to work on our streets and work for our people so that’s where I am and that’s all I’m going to say, thank you, “ Fleenor said.

The association thanked the council for their time and they hoped they would take their information into consideration.

The public did not get the chance to comment on the budget Tuesday. A public comment meeting is set for May 30 at Virginia High School’s Gymnasium at 6 p.m. The city will then do the first vote on their budget, June 13.

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