Houston's Budget Woes Could Lead to Idle Fire Trucks

The proposed measure also would reduce the number of firefighters per shift.

Feb. 20--The Houston Fire Department could begin limiting the number of firefighters on duty, idling some fire trucks in the process, in a bid to reduce soaring overtime costs.

The so-called "rolling brownouts," in which HFD intermittently would take trucks out of service at stations around the city, are the central cost-cutting measure Fire Chief Terry Garrison is expected to propose to the City Council's budget committee Thursday.

Council members say it would be a challenge to explain idle fire trucks to constituents, and say they must weigh public safety alongside budget integrity.

The community's response will depend on whether Garrison feels his plan provides adequate protection, Councilman Ed Gonzalez said.

"Anytime you're talking about operations that impact constituents in the community, that's always a huge concern, but we also have to trust that he is the expert on these matters and that's why he's in that position," Gonzalez said. "He has to say what he feels, where the cuts can and can't happen."

Councilman Jerry Davis said he is concerned about how to explain brownouts to his District B constituents.

"It just depends on how it's perceived," he said. "It's going to be a sensitive subject."

Ultimately, it may not come to that.

The Council could decide to cover the fire department's budget overruns from better-than-expected property and sales tax collections.

The mood around the council table and within the city administration, however, appears to be tilting more toward holding the fire department accountable to its $447 million budget. The department is on pace to overspend its budget by $10.5 million in the fiscal year that ends June 30. Of that, $8.5 million is attributed to excessive overtime driven by a staffing shortage, how time off is handled under the firefighters union contract and other factors.

"I'm not real sure that there are enough votes on council to just arbitrarily give them $8 million," said Councilman Stephen Costello, who chairs the budget committee. "Bear in mind, this is a short-term fix. It's just to get through the remainder of the budget, which is only four months."

As Mayor Annise Parker put it, "They managed their way into the problem; they can manage their way out."

Goal: Limiting overtime

Costello will present a resolution to the committee Thursday calling on Garrison to meet the department's original budget allocation. The committee is expected to vote on the resolution, and hear Garrison's plan to respond if it is approved. Committee votes are not binding, but are viewed as recommendations.

HFD spokesman Capt. Ruy Lozano declined to comment on the details of the department's plan until after Garrison's presentation Thursday. Houston never has instituted rolling brownouts, he said, but routinely shifts its resources within the city in such instances as when a large fire occurs.

"It's called a 'back-in company,'" Lozano explained. "A company from the southwest quadrant could go to the southeast quadrant as a back-in company if, let's say, there's a huge incident in the southeast area that's occupying a lot of apparatus, making the area vulnerable to a secondary incident."

Andy Icken, the city's chief development officer and a deputy chief of staff for Parker who oversees HFD, explained the idea of rolling brownouts:

Under the firefighters union contract, the city is required to staff four people per engine or ladder truck and two per ambulance. When department commanders review staffing each morning, count the unexpected absences and move resources around, many firefighters typically are called in to fill empty shifts for overtime pay. The goal, Icken said, would be to limit those overtime shifts.

For example, he said, if only three people assigned to a particular fire engine show up, that truck would be taken out of rotation and the three firefighters would be assigned to trucks at other stations, or a firefighter from another station would be assigned to the fourth seat, with the truck he left behind idled. The number of fire trucks taken out of service and the overtime shifts filled likely would change each day, Icken said.

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