EXCLUSIVE: Firefighters defend practice of trading shifts

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Firefighters defend practice of trading shifts, Miya Shay reports. (KTRK)

A day after a Houston firefighter spoke to Eyewitness News about cash payments for shifts, reaction has poured in from all sides. As we first reported, firefighters use Facebook pages, a website, and text messages to trade shifts with each other, often for cash payments.

While the practice surprised some of our viewers, retired Houston Fire Captain Russell Harris had an entirely different take.

"They're not selling a shift," he said.

Harris says when he was in the Houston Fire Department, he relied on so-called riders: Firefighters who worked others' shifts, to keep his fire house staffed. If there was cash exchanged, that doesn't concern him.

"It's not costing the tax payers anything, it's not costing the city anything, and if they're paying each other, then that's between those two people." said Harris.

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But the cash-for-shifts practice did worry Council Member Dave Martin, who called it "selling shifts for cash."

On Thursday, Martin contacted Controller Chris Brown and asked him to look into the matter. Brown says he is considering auditing part of the process sometime next year, but says it's unclear if anything would change.

"Cash payments would be very difficult to track and tough to audit. This is something that's a departmental issue that they're going to have to address," said Brown.

HFD's Interim Chief Rodney West says shift trading, which is allowed, is critical in helping him manage the department. As for cash payments, West says HFD used to have a policy that banned the practice, but currently has no policy either way.

"We don't condone any pay for trading," said West. "But the trading has helped us, in a lot of ways. It helps us with unscheduled absences, it helps control our overtime, and keep the costs the down."

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association released its statement on the issue:

"While we question the motives of the anonymous source in KTRK's report, the report raised important questions about the City's staffing levels in the fire department, its management of staffing shortfalls and HFD overtime costs. The pressure on firefighters regarding vacations, time off and other absences would be relieved if the city met national staffing standards and acted on the recent recommendations from the recent work demand analysis of HFD."

For now, don't expect anything to change.

HFD will be getting a new Fire Chief, Sam Pena, confirmed in the coming weeks. It will be up to Pena to decide if this issue warrants his attention.
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newsfirefightersfire departmentsinvestigationHouston
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