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HFD’s budget problems

I’m sure you’ve heard of this by now.

The safety of Houston’s citizens and its firefighters will be compromised over the next four months as the fire department limits the number of personnel on duty and removes trucks from service in an attempt to cut spending, Fire Chief Terry Garrison said Thursday.

“People that are suffering from EMS calls are going to be suffering a little longer, houses and buildings are going to burn a little bit longer, because our response times are going to be increased,” Garrison told members of the City Council’s budget committee. “We’re going to have to change our decision-making model when we get on the scene, because fires will be doubling in size every minute.”

City Councilman Stephen Costello, chairman of the budget committee, rejected Garrison’s bleak prediction.

“I find it hard to believe we’re going to compromise public safety. I really don’t believe that’s the case,” Costello said. “It’s simply a matter of, once we respond to a call, we make sure that we have backup from another station. They do it all the time when they have two- or three-alarm calls.”

City Council members listening to Garrison’s presentation Thursday visibly struggled to balance the two basic priorities of local government: financial responsibility and public safety. Those present voted 7-3 to hold HFD to its original $447 million budget rather than give it additional funding to cover soaring overtime costs. Committee votes are nonbinding but do indicate the will of the larger council.

HFD is on pace to exceed its budget by $10.5 million in the fiscal year that ends June 30. Most of that, $8.5 million, is due to overtime paid to firefighters to cover a staffing shortage exacerbated by a union contract that leaves the chief unable to restrict when firefighters take time off.

The department averaged 90 overtime shifts per day during the second half of last year, and has averaged 47 overtime shifts per day for the last 45 days.

To stay within budget over the remaining four months of the fiscal year, Garrison said, HFD must not average more than 23 overtime shifts per day.

On days the department exceeds that number, fire trucks will be idled and supervisory shifts will not be filled, the chief said.

Under his plan, Garrison said that one in five department engine and ladder trucks could be pulled out of service during the peak vacation months of March and June, and staffing could drop by as much as 10 percent on an average day.

There was an earlier story on this that previewed the problem. The Chron has a dedicated page to the story with a graph showing the various fire stations and what the effect of this would be, with more details here. The committee vote suggests this will pass when it goes before the full Council. Mayor Parker has expressed her support for the plan, saying that the Fire Department managed themselves into this situation and they can manage themselves out of it. It’s hard to read about this issue and not think about the ongoing political and legal battles between Mayor Parker and the firefighters, particularly the pension fund where another lawsuit has been filed over access to their files but also the union, which is now in contract negotiations with the city. I’m sure politics will play a big part in the final Council vote, not to mention in the next election. I am not surprised that CM Bradford, the Mayor’s main critic on Council, is strongly against the proposal to reduce overtime.

I haven’t seen it mentioned in the coverage so far, but this isn’t the first time there has been a shortfall due to overtime. In 2010, both HPD and HFD had multi-million dollar gaps to fill. I’ll be honest, I don’t remember how that was resolved, but I presume it wasn’t like this or we’d have had some recent history to guide us as to what the effect might be.

Something I’d like to know more about is the possible solution CM Costello proposed in a letter to the editor last week.

Eighty-five percent of all calls for HFD services are for emergency medical services, not fires. We have top-notch firefighters, but are we deploying them correctly?

While we must be well prepared for fires too, doesn’t it make more sense to scale our equipment and personnel to fit the needs of our city?

The mayor has stated that we must look at the current workload of the department and reorganize. Her proposed budget last year had $2 million built in for a work demand analysis for HFD so we could start this process. This idea got scrapped during the budget process as council members put this money to other uses, including a summer jobs program.

Why are we organized so heavily around fire equipment and personnel when clearly, more emphasis is needed on emergency medical services? The numbers just don’t support our current operation.

I’ve been told the reason we have more fire engine and ladder companies than ambulances is so we can maintain our No. 1 Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating and keep homeowners’ insurance rates low. ISO is a private, for-profit company which has developed a huge database for providing statistical information to evaluate potential risk in certain areas.

Fire departments often use the structure of the ISO rating to justify resources during the budget process. In 1997, Texas became one of the last states to adopt ISO’s Public Protection Classification System. Texas, while adopting the system, does not require insurance providers to use the ISO rating, allowing some companies to use their own data. State Farm, the nation’s largest insurance company was the first to stop using the ISO rating system in 2001. Instead of using theoretical data loss, State Farm looks at actual loss within a zip code.

I’m not sure how dependent we need to be on the No. 1 ISO rating. Research indicates that now ISO ratings might have very little effect on homeowners’ insurance rates since some insurance companies do not even rely on them. I’m not suggesting we lower standards in any way when it comes to protecting our citizens. I just want to make sure we are smart about allocating all of our HFD resources, including overtime.

We need to make sure our fire and emergency service delivery model makes sense for Houston in 2014 and adjust accordingly. Until then, budget shortfalls will surely continue.

The point about EMS versus fire services is a strong one, and given that this kind of shortfall is not unprecedented, it makes sense to me that the city ought to do that study CM Costello suggests. Maybe with a more efficient allocation of resources, we can then get serious about hiring more firefighters and EMTs, since as with HPD there is a looming retirement crisis among the current ranks. I’d like to see that work demand analysis get funded in the next budget. Anyone with more expertise in these matters want to comment about that?

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  1. firehat says:

    CM Costello’s letter to the editor was nonsensical to anyone who has any clue about fire service deployment models. The HFD is already deployed in a pretty efficient manner for EMS. Any critical medical patient requires quite a few people to treat and manage. It’s important to remember that EMS, contrary to what you see on TV, is not simply a ride to the hospital. You are treated in the field; indeed, in a cardiac arrest you won’t even begin to go to the hospital for 30 minutes or more as you are intubated, have an IV, receive various drugs, CPR, and a number of other things. This is all very manpower-intensive but it’s also time sensitive. What isn’t necessarily as time sensitive is the transport. That’s one reason why there are more fire trucks than ambulances- the fire trucks arrive first and start all that work. The alternative to that is to add a whole heck of a lot more ambulances to both get there sooner and send numerous ambulances for one patient just to get the manpower to manage (four on the fire engine vs two on the ambulance, remembering also that the fire engine has an officer to manage the overall scene).

    The other reason there are more fire trucks than ambulances is that fires and hazmat calls require tremendous numbers of people to manage effectively. And to manage them efficiently and safely you have to have th people there up front. That’s where Costello’s claim that they can just call backup is preposterous. You can call backup, yes, but they get there ten minutes after you and the victims need them. Those are ten long minutes! The key is the rate of people. Fifteen people in eight minutes is far, far safer and more effective than 30 people in 20 minutes.

    Further, to argue that only X% of Houston’s calls are for fire so we should de-emphasize deploying our resources for fires doesn’t stand to reason. Whatever that percentage is still represents thousands of fire calls a year and hundreds of “working” structure fires. This argument is analogous to saying a busy hospital should have fewer operating teams because only 16% of ER admission need surgery, even though all the operating rooms are in use every day.

    All this is well documented in scientific literature and NIST research. Not to mention hard experience. And in point of fact, this crisis was caused by the Parker administration, perhaps intentionally, not hiring enough people for several years when they knew there was going to be attrition and growth. Costello is either profoundly ignorant of an issue he wants to make policy over or he is a very bold liar.

  2. The Dude says:

    The only thing I find non-nonsensical is the fact that right on slide 7 of the Chief’s presentation that the union meet and confer allows up to 32% of the staff to be off at anyone one that. That’s absurd.

  3. Steve Houston says:

    Of course now the Chronicle is running an article how employees that did not call in sick, did not use vacation time, and worked all or most holidays for decades are responsible for building up an excess of hours the city will have to pay for when they retire. It’s clear the Chronicle is supportive of the mayor but the manner in which they run spoon fed articles from city sources in order to pressure HFD’s union and pension board is crazy.

    Costello’s knowledge of public safety issues can be summed up in very few words, none of which are fit to print in mixed company. By all means let HFD remain 500+ employees short of needed manpower and let HPD remain at 1000 – 2000 understaffed in order to save what amounts to pizza money, just be prepared to live with the results.

  4. Harry Cull says:

    The city has 325 MILLION in the rainy day fund. Two council members (you do some real research now) were behind the passing of an amendment keeping the mayors filthy fingers out of the rainy day fund. This is all because of a fight between the mayor and council members. If you don’t use all of your budget, don’t you lose it.? The fire chief was forced to make changes because they don’t listen about the staffing problem. As time moves on, budgets will need to be increased, just like your cost of living adjustments. Minimum wage went up right? Also, HFD needs 3,850 to run effectively, they currently have 500 less then that, 3350. That’s what it’s budgeted for, not the 3850 it needs. Thank Mr. Depaschel on that one. How’s the 50,000 a year paycut and demotion for that horrible budgeting error. So, Mr. Kuff…..Your comments about EMS within the city and how we need to change the department to focus more on it are slanted. I haven’t heard of any firefighters dying by get tangled up in EKG wires or transporting a 911 abuser to the hosp for a stumped toe lately. Research what the city gets from the US GOV on each transport to the hospital….then where the money goes. Research how many people actually pay HFD for Transportation to the hospital. I get what your agenda is but I assure you, what your mayor and the council members are doing will impact the citizens safety.

    Oh, ever wonder why this city is growing? Why it has such an awesome insurance rating? Yep……..HFD

  5. Andrew says:

    As firehat said above, the “Fire vs. EMS” issue is a made-up one. It dates back to a Boston Herald (I think?) op-ed criticizing their FD for the same reason… but yet, any time I’ve seen this issue raised, nobody has any ideas about how the current system might be improved.

    The majority of the time, sure–we might be better off with more ambulances than fire trucks… but for those blocks of time when there is an active structure fire (every day), much less a multiple alarm fire (multiple times per week), we need every fire suppression apparatus in the department and more.

    We need the numbers so that every building in every part of the city can have as short a response time as possible; one minute of response time makes a GIGANTIC difference in what a FD can do at a scene in terms of stopping the fire and searching for victims vs. standing back and protecting surrounding structures once the original building is out of control. Multiple engine companies actively attack the fire and establish water supply for those attackers. Multiple ladder companies ventilate the building and search for victims. Multiple chiefs are necessary to organize the attack and ensure firefighter safety. EMS units are needed to standby at fire scenes in case victims are found, or firefighters become injured.

    When all of that is going on, other trucks are pulled from around the city to fill the holes that need filling so that every building in every part of the city can STILL have great response time for any emergency imaginable. Keep in mind that simultaneous multiple-alarm fires are not out of the ordinary.

    To sum up the first point: Houston needs every fire apparatus we’ve got to do the job as well as HFD does it (which is VERY well, looking at national statistics). If you want to reduce HFD’s ability to fight fires to save money, so be it–but call it for what it is.

    SECOND POINT: Every Houston firefighter is also an EMT. Fire apparatuses often respond to EMS calls 1)if they are expected to beat the nearest ambulance 2)if extra manpower is needed. In the first case, the fire truck can then call for an ambulance if transportation to the hospital is necessary, and the second case happens a LOT. (CPR with ALS care takes 6-7 people to be done as well as possible, there are some VERY heavy people that need lifting).

    I’ve seen it suggested that those companies should respond in SUV’s instead. Wait, what? How much would a fleet of SUV’s cost? Do you mean instead of the fire apparatuses? (see first point) Is it the gas mileage that causes concern? I’m sure those trucks get terrible mileage, but a ladder truck isn’t driving anybody to the hospital, they’ll just be responding within a few mile radius to make sure a person having a medical emergency can be tended to as rapidly as possible.

    I went into more detail, but as firehat said… Houston has a very good, and very efficient system in place. The only way to cut cost would be to cut the effectiveness.

    I think a better question would be, “why hasn’t the city hired firefighters to keep pace with the city’s growth?” This would have solved the overtime situation before it started, and there’s clearly a problem if you look at the city’s grown/tax income vs. the Houston FD’s allocated budget and staffing numbers the last few years.