Are budget cuts affecting fire department service?

February 16, 2011 5:00:59 PM PST
The city of Houston has lost nearly 1,000 employees in the last 12 months. In Focus reporter Ted Oberg continues his look at how the combination of layoffs, retirements and budget cuts affect the service on your block -- specifically at the Houston Fire Department.

What we're looking at are examples where doing more with less may not be the entire truth.

At the Houston Fire Department, they've made changes to the EMS system to reduce the number of people working every day, but hopefully not affect your service. The department has cut some training dollars at the academy, but hopefully it won't impact cadets. And they've reassigned firefighters from the headquarters out to fire stations in the hope that the service to you remains the same.

"I enjoyed what I was doing before. I enjoyed that," said firefighter Ronald Harrison.

He is a sign of the times in the Houston Fire Department. He's been a firefighter for 17 years, but just recently got back to actually fighting fires.

"My job now is basically a rescuer," Harrison said.

For the last two years, Harrison worked at department headquarters in the Chaplain's office, and on days when blazes strike, an office job looks a whole lot better than a job out in the field.

But Harrison had no choice. He was one of 30 firefighters moved out of office jobs and on to the front lines.

"Just the budget crunch. It was basically numbers. They tried to get as many people as they could back into the station," Harrison said.

HFD tells us the move saved the city $500,000 in overtime this budget year. City-imposed cuts are keeping the fire academy from hiring enough cadets to grow the department's ranks and a hiring slowdown prevents them from replacing the support staff with civilians -- or for that matter replacing the dozens of civilians who left the fire department in the last 12 months.

The budget crunch forces everyone to make changes, but Harrison's move isn't likely to be reversed.

"I would go back in a heartbeat. I like doing this, but I loved doing that," said Harrison.

HFD hopes to correct some of the things they've had to do to cut money next year when they get the new budget.