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Fearing the fire reform

This ought to be interesting.

Rumblings of coming reforms in Houston Fire Department’s operations have union leaders and the department’s command staff wary, despite Mayor Annise Parker’s insistence that these concerns are unwarranted.

HFD’s staffing shortage has driven up overtime costs, creating a budget crisis that has, on some days, seen ambulances and fire trucks pulled from service. These budget discussions have dominated City Hall in recent weeks, leading the mayor and some council members to question whether the department’s $450 million budget could be spent more efficiently.

Parker, for instance, said she questions whether the city should invest in more ambulances and fewer new fire trucks, given that 85 percent of HFD’s calls are medical emergencies and that fire trucks are more expensive to purchase, staff and maintain. She also wonders whether the city is “oversaturated” in the way it places its 103 fire stations and deploys its 216-vehicle fleet.

The mayor is adamant, however, that she will not pursue reforms without a planned third-party study of HFD’s operations that is months away.

“Let me say this for about the 15th time publicly: I am not interested in splitting fire and EMS, nor am I interested in privatizing our EMS service in the city of Houston,” Parker said. “Are we clear? People make stuff up all the time. It’s just amazing.”

Most of the concern centers on the upcoming utilization study for the fire department, and a recent reorganization that has “HFD” and “EMS” reporting to different people. The firefighters’ union is worried that despite the Mayor’s insistence that it won’t happen, fire and EMS will be split into two distinct groups, with EMS workers being separate from the firefighters’ pension plan. The study is still several months away from beginning, and who knows what it will eventually conclude, but I think it’s safe to say there will be resistance to any recommendations of big changes. The early returns are quite revealing:

[HFD Chief Terry] Garrison and [HPFFA President Bryan] Sky-Eagle each said they would not fight the third-party study Parker wants as long as their input is welcomed. But some council members questioned whether the reforms such a study might recommend could be implemented.

Even idling a few trucks has affected the public’s perception of their safety, Councilman Ed Gonzalez said.

“Can you imagine if we said we’re going to start shutting down stations?” he said. “That’s a huge monster to undertake.”

Councilman Dave Martin was blunter.

“The council member is going to go crazy, the citizens are going to go crazy and World War III is going to break out,” he said. “I’d bet my last nickel it’s not going to be able to happen.”

I’ll be blunt as well. I’ve conducted over 100 interviews with Council candidates since 2007. Pretty much every one of them says something to the effect of how the city needs to be more efficient, to do more with less, to find new ways to deliver services in a cost-effective manner – you get the idea. Everyone wants the city to live within its budget and not raise taxes while doing all the things the city needs to do. Well, public safety is the majority of the budget, and if we can’t even talk about how they’re spending that money – if we can’t “look for efficiencies” and all those other cliches in that part of the budget – then we’re just chanting mantras about the budget and how we manage it. I’m not saying we have to accept any of the recommendations that the study will eventually make – for any number of valid reasons, we may find those recommendations to be unsuitable – but I am saying we need to keep an open mind. Change is always hard, but if it makes sense we ought to at least consider it.

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