HOUSTON -- Houston’s fire chief, facing an overtime budget crisis triggered by an ongoing staff shortage, has drawn up a plan to temporarily take some of the city’s fire trucks and paramedic vehicles off the streets.
Chief Terry Garrison, clearly unhappy with the prospect of parking some of his vehicles on the sidelines, bluntly told city council the plan will reduce emergency response times and endanger firefighters and the public.
“People that are suffering for EMS calls are going to suffer a little bit longer,” Garrison predicted. “Houses are going to burn, houses and buildings are going to burn a little bit longer.”
Nobody at City Hall seems to like the idea, but most city council members flatly oppose giving the fire department more money to bail it out of a budget problem they think HFD should have seen coming. The fire department, they say, must live within its budget.
“We have to stop kicking the can down the road and spending more money than we have,” said Dave Martin, a city councilmember. “You can’t do it in your daily life, and you can’t do it in city life.”
Exactly how many fire trucks and paramedic units would sit idle will vary from day to day depending on how many firefighters take the day off. HFD has drawn up a tiered schedule showing which fire stations will be impacted.
The fire chief says it’s realistic to assume that, every day between March and June, 13% of fire trucks and 9% of paramedic vehicles will stay parked in their stations, cutting the number of firefighters on duty by 10%. Worst of all will be the peak vacation months of March and June, when HFD estimates 19% of fire trucks and 9% of paramedic units will stay off the streets, reducing the number of firefighters on duty by 14%.
The unprecedented “rolling brownout” plan comes after years of staffing shortages, which HFD has covered by paying firefighters growing amounts of overtime to work extra shifts. Council members, already alarmed by the city’s mushrooming obligation to pay generous firefighter pensions, balked at the prospect of giving HFD another $8.5-million to cover its overtime shortfall.
After grilling the fire chief for about two hours, a city council committee passed a resolution endorsing the plan. That resolution has no legal impact – the mayor is the fire chief’s boss, and she doesn’t need city council’s approval to let him implement this plan – but it provides her with some political cover for an inevitably controversial idea.
An aide to the mayor said she’s concerned about cuts to paramedic service, so she’s telling the chief to try to emphasize sidelining fire trucks over emergency medical vehicles.
The Houston Fire Department is more like an ambulance department that also puts out fires. Fully 85% of its calls for help are calls for emergency medical service. HFD assumed control of emergency medical services during the 1970’s, but over the decades stronger city codes and safer building materials have dramatically decreased the incidence of fire. At the same time, paramedic calls have skyrocketed.
The “rolling brownout” plan is expected to take effect in March and continue through June. On July 1, the city begins its new fiscal year and the fire department will have a new budget, presumably ending the crisis that’s precipitated the proposed cutbacks.