The union representing Fairfax County firefighters said yesterday that a proposal by the Fire and Rescue Department to reduce staff on advanced life support ambulance units for budgetary reasons next year could jeopardize lives.

Last weekend, members of the Fairfax County Professional Fire Fighters union attended several fairs and began distributing leaflets suggesting that staff reductions "would most seriously compromise the quality of care which is now provided to county residents," according to a statement released yesterday.

The union's action was in response to a plan that would reduce from three to two the number of staff members on advanced life support units, which handle cardiac arrests, trauma and other severe injuries.

"If you look at the amount of equipment in an {advanced life support} unit, it certainly can't be operated by two people," said Dave Lyons, second vice president of the 983-member association. "If additional help were needed, it would have to be summoned."

Lyons, noting that response time can be crucial in administering care, said the association recognizes that these are difficult financial times, but that "public safety" is not where the cuts should be made.

Fire department officials said the change is being considered as a means to enhance service, not diminish it. Although the county is facing a projected budget shortfall for next fiscal year totaling as much as $60 million, fire officials said there is still a need to expand and improve services for a growing population.

Pam Weiger, spokeswoman for the Fire and Rescue Department, said alternatives are being explored because officials believe it is imprudent to expect an increase in funding.

Cutting the number of staff members assigned to advanced life support units might allow the department to form additional units to reach parts of the county not being adequately served or to establish relief units, she said.

Weiger said the department is studying whether the reduction would harm the level of service.

"What we are looking at is where we could put those people to result in an increase in service," Weiger said. "We can't afford a lag time."