HFD Chief: 'Perfect Storm' as holiday brings record quarantine amidst staffing crisis

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The Houston Fire Department reported a record number of firefighters in quarantine. Officials say 307 firefighters are now sidelined due to the illness, heading into the July 4th weekend. It is so many the union fears there may not be enough firefighters to staff every position Saturday.

As of midday Friday, the Houston Fire Chief admitted the department was at least 98 firefighters short of full staffing for the shift that starts at 6 a.m. Saturday. It could be as high as 148, depending on how many firefighters are willing to work overtime.

The department says it will work to fill those shifts through available overtime and holding firefighters over.

"We have overtime money available for us," Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena told 13 Investigates. "It's just a matter of having the personnel available, the bodies to come to work."

Firefighter union president Marty Lancton sounded the alarm that the shortage could mean idled fire apparatus and delayed response times.

"Depending on the staffing levels, you're either going to get a reduced response time for fire and EMS emergencies, or you're not going to have a unit that is closest to your house or your business," Lancton warned.

As the chief's team scrambles to find firefighters to fill shifts, Lancton calls Saturday the "perfect storm." The July 4th holiday always brings extra calls. They will come on top of a 30% increase in calls for service in recent weeks.

It comes at a time when HFD is already short-staffed. Chief Pena told 13 Investigates that the department was already down nearly 300 firefighters due to early retirements and firefighters transferring to other fire departments.

"On a good day, pre-COVID, we are hemorrhaging Houston firefighters," Lancton told Oberg, "(and) these are not good days."

As COVID-19 has surged, an increasing number of firefighters have been exposed on- and off-duty. The 307 in quarantine Friday exceeds the high mark for March and April, when COVID-19 first surged in the city.

Outside the union hall Friday, Lancton looked over the shortages and told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg, "These numbers are something we've never seen."

Pena won't know until early Saturday morning exactly how short the department is, but pledges to keep every station open. They will fill ambulance staffing first, then fire engines, then ladder trucks. In recent days, the department has dealt with short-staffing by making overtime available. Chief Pena tells ABC13 virtually every firefighter is working at least one extra 24 hour shift per week, and some are working more.

The list of easy options is out of options.

"When you've sidelined that many personnel," Pena said, "it becomes difficult to staff units even in the best staffed departments."

Both the department and union wanted to emphasize that 911 will remain open and firefighters will respond as best they can.
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