HFD budget issues could impact public safety

Firefighters say the city's plan to pull some engines off the streets is putting people at risk
February 20, 2014 3:57:30 PM PST
It's a budget battle involving Houston firefighters and it could cause some engines to be pulled off the streets. Firefighters say the city's plan over $8 million is putting people at risk.

Just how fast a firefighter or paramedic gets to you when you need it was the heart of the discussion Thursday at Houston city hall, and the fire chief says the options don't look promising.

"The people who are going to be impacted by this, are the people who are going to be calling 911," said HFD Chief Terry Garrison.

Here's the problem: For the current fiscal year running through June, the fire department has a $452 million budget. It's currently running $8.5 million over. So the department needs to make cuts, unless City Council wants to make up the difference. And council member Dave Martin says he doesn't.

"There's not a pot of gold," Martin said. "Whether that department is police, fixing our streets, picking up garbage, we're going to find the money somewhere."

Because the contract between the city and the firefighters' union have minimum staffing requirements, the only way for the department to cut overtime is to let certain fire trucks sit idle when firefighters take time off. It's called a brownout, and firefighters don't think it's a viable option.

"I'm not OK with jeopardizing citizens and firefighters," one firefighter said. "I'm not OK with that."

The fire chief says he's analyzing how potential brownouts will affect response time for emergencies. Martin says despite the risk, everyone has to learn to work within a budget.

He said, "Do we have risk? Absolutely. But remember, 85 percent of the calls to 911 in HFD are related to EMS, which means the remaining 15 percent are fire."

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