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COVID contributes to staffing problems already straining Houston Fire Department

Fire Chief Peña said says response times have been impacted by the number of firefighters out with COVID-19.

COVID-19 is adding more frustration to a staffing crisis the Houston Professional Fire Fighter's Association says has been brewing for years.

Some 200 Houston firefighters were out with COVID as of Friday afternoon, according to HFD.

“The same level and rates of infection we are seeing in our community, it’s visiting us here at home," Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña said.

He says response times have been impacted by the number of firefighters out with COVID.

“It depends on the time of day, but on average we are seeing an increase of about 15-30 seconds delay," Peña said.

The chief says it’s not just the delays, they’ve also had to take truck companies out of service because they simply don’t have the staff.

“We haven’t had to close any stations in the last two years since the pandemic has hit, we have not. What we have done is idled or browned out truck companies."

However, Marty Lancton, President of Houston Professional Fire Fighter's Association says the department’s staffing crisis wasn’t caused by COVID.

“Our staffing crisis was here before COVID, absolutely does any impact make that situation worse, absolutely," said Lancton.

He says 400 firefighters have left the department in recent years because of the battle over how much firefighters are paid.

“If you don’t have enough firefighters to man the apparatus, that’s a problem, seconds matter in our business," said Lancton.

He says so does safety. It’s why the firefighter union deployed COVID testing to fire stations.

“We can’t continue to ask our firefighters to do more with less, the time is now for leaders to step up," said Lancton.

Chief Peña says they are paying overtime to get as many firefighters on streets as they can, but admits it could take several years for recruiting to catch up.

“We are still dealing with the hangover and the effects that Proposition B had on our staffing levels. This virus has just made the situation worse," said Chief Peña.

HFD also says they are seeing an increase in their call volume right now. They’re asking people to only call 911 if there’s a true emergency -- not because they need to get tested for COVID.

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