I’m sure you’ve heard of this by now.
The safety of Houston’s citizens and its firefighters will be compromised over the next four months as the fire department limits the number of personnel on duty and removes trucks from service in an attempt to cut spending, Fire Chief Terry Garrison said Thursday.
“People that are suffering from EMS calls are going to be suffering a little longer, houses and buildings are going to burn a little bit longer, because our response times are going to be increased,” Garrison told members of the City Council’s budget committee. “We’re going to have to change our decision-making model when we get on the scene, because fires will be doubling in size every minute.”
City Councilman Stephen Costello, chairman of the budget committee, rejected Garrison’s bleak prediction.
“I find it hard to believe we’re going to compromise public safety. I really don’t believe that’s the case,” Costello said. “It’s simply a matter of, once we respond to a call, we make sure that we have backup from another station. They do it all the time when they have two- or three-alarm calls.”
City Council members listening to Garrison’s presentation Thursday visibly struggled to balance the two basic priorities of local government: financial responsibility and public safety. Those present voted 7-3 to hold HFD to its original $447 million budget rather than give it additional funding to cover soaring overtime costs. Committee votes are nonbinding but do indicate the will of the larger council.
HFD is on pace to exceed its budget by $10.5 million in the fiscal year that ends June 30. Most of that, $8.5 million, is due to overtime paid to firefighters to cover a staffing shortage exacerbated by a union contract that leaves the chief unable to restrict when firefighters take time off.
The department averaged 90 overtime shifts per day during the second half of last year, and has averaged 47 overtime shifts per day for the last 45 days.
To stay within budget over the remaining four months of the fiscal year, Garrison said, HFD must not average more than 23 overtime shifts per day.
On days the department exceeds that number, fire trucks will be idled and supervisory shifts will not be filled, the chief said.
Under his plan, Garrison said that one in five department engine and ladder trucks could be pulled out of service during the peak vacation months of March and June, and staffing could drop by as much as 10 percent on an average day.
There was an earlier story on this that previewed the problem. The Chron has a dedicated page to the story with a graph showing the various fire stations and what the effect of this would be, with more details here. The committee vote suggests this will pass when it goes before the full Council. Mayor Parker has expressed her support for the plan, saying that the Fire Department managed themselves into this situation and they can manage themselves out of it. It’s hard to read about this issue and not think about the ongoing political and legal battles between Mayor Parker and the firefighters, particularly the pension fund where another lawsuit has been filed over access to their files but also the union, which is now in contract negotiations with the city. I’m sure politics will play a big part in the final Council vote, not to mention in the next election. I am not surprised that CM Bradford, the Mayor’s main critic on Council, is strongly against the proposal to reduce overtime.
I haven’t seen it mentioned in the coverage so far, but this isn’t the first time there has been a shortfall due to overtime. In 2010, both HPD and HFD had multi-million dollar gaps to fill. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember how that was resolved, but I presume it wasn’t like this or we’d have had some recent history to guide us as to what the effect might be.
Something I’d like to know more about is the possible solution CM Costello proposed in a letter to the editor last week.
Eighty-five percent of all calls for HFD services are for emergency medical services, not fires. We have top-notch firefighters, but are we deploying them correctly?
While we must be well prepared for fires too, doesn’t it make more sense to scale our equipment and personnel to fit the needs of our city?
The mayor has stated that we must look at the current workload of the department and reorganize. Her proposed budget last year had $2 million built in for a work demand analysis for HFD so we could start this process. This idea got scrapped during the budget process as council members put this money to other uses, including a summer jobs program.
Why are we organized so heavily around fire equipment and personnel when clearly, more emphasis is needed on emergency medical services? The numbers just don’t support our current operation.
I’ve been told the reason we have more fire engine and ladder companies than ambulances is so we can maintain our No. 1 Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating and keep homeowners’ insurance rates low. ISO is a private, for-profit company which has developed a huge database for providing statistical information to evaluate potential risk in certain areas.
Fire departments often use the structure of the ISO rating to justify resources during the budget process. In 1997, Texas became one of the last states to adopt ISO’s Public Protection Classification System. Texas, while adopting the system, does not require insurance providers to use the ISO rating, allowing some companies to use their own data. State Farm, the nation’s largest insurance company was the first to stop using the ISO rating system in 2001. Instead of using theoretical data loss, State Farm looks at actual loss within a zip code.
I’m not sure how dependent we need to be on the No. 1 ISO rating. Research indicates that now ISO ratings might have very little effect on homeowners’ insurance rates since some insurance companies do not even rely on them. I’m not suggesting we lower standards in any way when it comes to protecting our citizens. I just want to make sure we are smart about allocating all of our HFD resources, including overtime.
We need to make sure our fire and emergency service delivery model makes sense for Houston in 2014 and adjust accordingly. Until then, budget shortfalls will surely continue.
The point about EMS versus fire services is a strong one, and given that this kind of shortfall is not unprecedented, it makes sense to me that the city ought to do that study CM Costello suggests. Maybe with a more efficient allocation of resources, we can then get serious about hiring more firefighters and EMTs, since as with HPD there is a looming retirement crisis among the current ranks. I’d like to see that work demand analysis get funded in the next budget. Anyone with more expertise in these matters want to comment about that?