CLEVELAND - The Fire Department has spent more than $400,000 in the last year and a half to help people get into their cars or homes after being locked out, a Channel 3 News investigation found.
"That might keep us with at least three firemen still working," said City Councilman Kevin Conwell, who chairs the public safety committee. "It doesn't appear that is a good way to use the resident's dollars. I'm not happy with that."
Firefighters responded to 3,357 lock-out calls from January, 2010 through June, 2011, according to city records obtained under the state Open Public Records Act.
The city does not track how much it spends to respond to such calls.
Channel 3 News estimates it would cost $443,000 if it took firefighters an average of 30 minutes to respond to a call, get the person inside, and then return to the firehouse.
Even if firefighters averaged 15 minutes per round trip, it would cost the city $221,500.
The figure is based on hourly costs provided by the department. Spokesman Larry Gray says a fire vehicle can cost up to $135 per hour and a four-man crew costs $130 per hour.
Chief Paul Stubbs disputed that figure, saying the department would have to pay those costs regardless of whether they were sent on a run. He figures the cost is more like $10,000 a year - to pay for the fuel.
He also said the department only dispatches firefighters to what it believes are emergency situations involving those who are locked out.
"It could be a young mother with her children locked out of her car at two in the morning," Stubbs said. "If there is absolutely no emergency, if the car's in the driveway and the keys are locked in the car, you should refer them to a locksmith."
When asked how often firefighters are responding to emergencies as opposed to non-emergency situations, Stubbs said, "Reviewing our records, it looks like at least 90, 80 percent of the time, it's an emergency and we're helping people."
After being reminded that the city doesn't keep such records, Stubbs said those figures were based on anecdotes relayed to him by firefighters -- and not records.
Conwell said the city should issue tickets to those who tell 911 dispatchers that there is an emergency situation when there is none.
"At least you can monitor it (to see how often it happens,)" said Conwell.
Firefighters were called most often -- 28 times -- to the Steelyard Commons shopping center in Tremont for help getting someone into their locked vehicle.
Second on the list was a shopping center on West 117th Street, just north of I-90, even though security patrols the lot. Safety forces even responded to four reports of lockouts at a strip club in the Flats.
"You want those forces to be available for somebody else in case they're really in dire straits, not opening up somebody's car door," said Clevelander Jack Waldeck.
Stubbs said firefighters can respond to higher priority calls if necessary, which is why they most often take a hook-and-ladder truck to a lock-out call.
But some firefighters we spoke to said it could impact safety if they're on a lock-out and called to a fire miles away.
For his part, Conwell plans to call for a review of fire department policy on lock-outs. He thinks there must be a better, more effective option.
In the meantime, drivers who lock themselves out of the car in downtown Cleveland can call the Downtown Cleveland Alliance. They will get you back in your car for free -- and at no cost to taxpayers.
The number to call is 216-621-6000.