HOUSTON — The Houston Fire Department is struggling to staff fire engines and ambulances ahead of the Fourth of July holiday weekend due to a combination of staffing issues.
More than 300 HFD firefighters, EMTs and paramedics are in quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19, according to Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña.
The Houston Professional Firefighters Association president, Patrick Lancton, said that the pandemic amplifies the issues of the already short-staffed Fire Department.
Peña said HFD came into 2020 already short by roughly 300 employees. He attributes the shortage to two main issues: "higher than normal" attrition, and the passage of Proposition B, which increased firefighter pay, cutting the department's recruiting budget.
Lancton said if the department orders service reductions, incident response times will likely increase, and fire and EMS service outages will occur throughout the city.
Lancton said the city needed to address these staffing issues sooner.
“We have firefighters that have been at the station for 2 and 3 days straight that cannot get relief, and on a perfect day, the city does not have the staffing, so adding COVID absolutely makes the situation even worse," Lancton said.
Friday, Houston mayor Sylvester Turner authorized additional overtime pay for firefighters, but they are asking the public to not use fireworks, which frequently cause fires, to avoid overtaxing the system. They also ask people to maintain strict hygiene, mask-wearing, and social distancing protocols to avoid getting COVID-19.
"Houstonians need to know this: We will answer their calls no matter what, but HFD is at a breaking point – and has been for a long time," Lancton wrote in a press release.
Lancton said HFD command staff was considering closing stations. Chief Peña said that will not happen.
“We will not close any fire station," Chief Peña said. “If we get into a situation where there is just not enough personnel available, we will prioritize the ambulances and the fire engines to be staffed primarily.”
Lancton said the COVID-19 pandemic has been a serious challenge for HFD.
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Just last week, Chief Peña said the department has seen a 140 percent increase in firefighters needing to quarantine because of the exposure to COVID-19 patients while on duty.
The number of coronavirus cases in Harris County surged in the month of June prompting Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo to move the county and city to the "highest possible threat level" for COVID-19.
On Thursday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an order requiring all Texans residing in counties with more than 20 cases to wear a face mask while in a commercial space, public buildings, or when in an outdoor setting that does not allow for 6 feet of physical distancing.