AUSTIN - El Paso's hazmat unit cut in half. Fire trucks going on emergency calls short one or more firefighters. And almost 70 positions unfilled as the city hurries to graduate more fire cadets.
Despite official assurances that the city's fire department is adequately staffed, a source tells El Paso Inc. the safety of area residents - and the firefighters themselves - may be compromised by continued manpower shortages.
Late last week, with a budget crisis now compounding staff shortages, came this order: More than a dozen firefighters assigned to the department's hazmat team and the fire marshal's office were pulled from their critical duties.
Instead, they are being detailed to pick up shifts at fire stations throughout the city as the department tries to cut back on overtime. A department spokesperson confirmed the budget squeeze to El Paso Inc. In the first four months of the fiscal year, the department used more than $2 million of its $2.4 million overtime budget. "When we only have $400,000 left for eight more months, we know we're not going to make it through the year," said spokesman Lt. Mario Hernandez. He called the situation "temporary," saying the detailed firefighters will return to their regular duties over the next two months as two new classes of recruits are expected to join the department. But a firefighter who wished to remain anonymous said that the new recruits wouldn't even come close to solving the department's problems. According to officials, the department has 873 firefighters on staff, making it 67 short of its staffing goal of 940. "That class will just be a Band-Aid," the firefighter said. "It's a knee-jerk reaction to something they let sit for a while."
Less staff, more trucks
The source explained to El Paso Inc. that according to department protocol, two firefighters must backup every one that enters a fire. "For every fire truck, there is supposed to be four guys. And for every ladder truck there should be five," the source said. "You only see three people on all of them right now. We've even had to modify our response manuals." In order to meet that minimum, more trucks must be sent to each scene. That means emergencies previously handled by one truck are requiring two or more, thereby reducing the department's ability to respond to multiple incidents simultaneously. The source said firefighters couldn't make the city hire more people. "But we can call more trucks to make sure we won't get hurt," he said.
Last week's order moved 15 firefighters - 12 inspectors from the fire marshal's office and three members of the city's hazmat team - back to regular firefighting duties. Before the move, El Paso's dedicated hazmat team was staffed 24-hours a day with one officer, one fire suppression technician, and four firefighters. The hazmat team responds to incidents involving hazardous materials, including many truck accidents, where potentially dangerous chemicals can be a factor. Now the team consists of the officer, the technician and one firefighter. Hernandez said that the city would still be safe if there was a major accident or chemical spill. "The moves will not affect or compromise public safety," he said. "We are doing this for the overtime issue and we won't compromise public safety or weaken any special unit for it." In addition, Hernandez said, dozens of city firefighters are hazmat certified, and they could easily respond in the case of an emergency. When the new classes graduate, Hernandez said the 15 firefighters would return to their special units, even though the department will still have 20 to 30 open positions. Joe Tellez, head of the El Paso Association of Firefighters, said according to the department's contract with the city, it must have a minimum of three firefighters per unit. He's worried about staffing levels dropping below that. "I haven't gotten complaints from firefighters about working too much overtime, but I know that staffing has always been an issue," he said. "We are willing to help to try and address the situation. My main concern is that the contract with the city is not violated." Tellez said he's been out of town, but will meet with Chief Roberto Rivera about the situation as soon as he gets back. "It looks like I picked the wrong time to take my vacation," he said.
Years ago, the fire department trained recruits for six months at its own academy. There was no shortage of people signing up. Recruits were paid a healthy salary during training. But in an effort to save money, the city decided to run a training program through El Paso Community College. Recruits now pay for their training. The move brought a drastic drop in the number of recruits. "Classes that once had 60 or 70 people now only have 20 or 25," a source told El Paso Inc. "Recruits would rather go through hell for six months at the academy and get paid than have to pay out of their own pockets." At the same time, the department is aging, and the number of firefighters choosing to retire is outstripping the number of new recruits coming in. The department says about 20 firefighters leave its ranks per year due to attrition. That's contributed to the overtime budget crisis, but Hernandez insists it's temporary.
"Once the February class graduates, everything will go back to normal," Hernandez said. But the firefighter source says again that even with 50 or 60 new recruits joining the force in the coming months, the department will still be significantly understaffed.
Greg Dawson is the director of emergency preparedness for the North-Central Texas Council of Governments. He said moving firefighters is a common way to alleviate departmental budget problems. In fact, he said Fort Worth's fire department had similar cutbacks a few years ago because of overtime issues. "El Paso is actually one of the fortunate cities because you have a dedicated hazmat team," he said. "Many cities combine with other cities - sometimes as many as 12 - to create just one team." Dawson said he's familiar with the city's operations. "El Paso is somewhat isolated," he said, "but there are surrounding communities and departments that could easily help out in the event of an emergency."
As a whole, departments are still much better prepared for emergencies than they were in 2002, he added. "In Texas, we have a good hazmat capability," he said.
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