Dallas Fire-Rescue is facing its own 911 emergency.
It's losing people faster than it can replace them. The 1,800 member department is stretched thin and overworked.
“When I meet with them and I meet with our members pretty regularly, they're tired,” said Fire Chief David Coatney. “They look worn out. Some of them look beaten down.”
Coatney became chief nine months ago after a five-year stint as Round Rock’s chief and a 25-year career in San Antonio.
The department's already lost more than 100 firefighters seven and half months into this fiscal year. Last year, the department lost 122 firefighters for the whole year. The department expects to lose about 215 before the year's out.
The current plan is to replace about half of them, although the chief hopes to be able to hire more than is currently planned.
“We have firefighters and paramedics that are working more, making more runs and just getting worn out,” says Jim McDade, president of the Dallas Fire Fighters Association. ”It's a safety issue for us and it's a definitely an issue for the public.”
Firefighters of all experience levels are making their way to the exit door. Low pay and a failing pension system are the primary reasons they are leaving.
“You can get hired on in Dallas. We'll train you, put you paramedic school,” McDade says, “and then you can get hired in the suburbs and make $10,000 more a year walking in the door and have a stable pension on top of that.”
The chief is worried about the brain drain of the department’s most tenured members.
“Losing that kind of knowledge and experience is devastating to any organization,” he says. “As you promote new employees, you have to properly train them and educate them in their new roles but nothing replaces that experience. That only comes with time. “
He says the departures have significantly slowed in recent months. But McDade and others believe once the pension bill is finalized, many veteran firefighters will leave because the changes will make it no longer financially beneficial to stay.
“We’re not seeing that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” says Joseph “JoJo” Martinez, president of the Dallas Hispanic Firefighters Association.
Martinez, a 12-year veteran, is a Dallas native. He is assigned to station 34 in Pleasant Grove. He is a member of the department’s swift water rescue team.
“I'm from here and you know I want to make a difference,” says. “Being a firefighter, it’s built on tradition. It’s a family.”
At his station, two of the people he worked with left for Plano. Those departures have created a heavier work load.
“We have to pick up more shifts and the paramedics are feeling it a lot more because they’re riding the ambulance a lot more,” he says.
McDade, Martinez and other association leaders say the department is increasingly plugging the staffing hole through overtime.
“Every day the same number of people show up to work whether they are being paid overtime cause they worked the day before or they’re scheduled to work that day,” McDade says. “Overtime is going to continue to go up which is just going to cost the city more money.”
The chief says he hasn’t seen a huge spike in overtime costs. He’s asked for an analysis of the department’s use of overtime to better understand the concerns that are being raised.
Neither McDade nor Martinez have any plans to leave.
“We have some great leadership,” McDade says. “We have some the best firefighters and paramedics around.”
Coatney says he’s doing everything he can to improve the working conditions of his firefighters and paramedics. Some of that includes better prioritizing the department’s response to medical calls.
He is hopeful that pay raises recently approved by the Dallas City Council will encourage people to stay.
“Our job, the people that oversee this department, is to take care of them,” the chief says. “If we take care of our people, they’re going to take care of the citizens...I think the heart of a firefighter is that no matter when the tone comes out, they’re going to get the job done.”