Fort Worth’s fire response times to increase with staffing cuts, chief says

Posted Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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(This story has been corrected to say that the Fort Worth city staff is recommending two fire stations in the 2014 bond program - one in the far south and another in the far west.)

-- Fire response times will increase if the city doesn’t fill the 36 vacant firefighter jobs proposed to be eliminated in Fort Worth’s $570 million general fund budget, Fire Chief Rudy Jackson told City Council members Thursday.

The department would “deactivate” an average four fire companies — a vehicle and its crew — on various days through the year to compensate for the lost positions, all assigned to the department’s vacation relief pool, Jackson told council members during a daylong budget workshop..

The deactivations would occur at only 12 of the city’s 42 stations — the ones that have double companies, Jackson said. On days when deactivations occur, average response times from those stations would increase one minute and 48 seconds, Jackson estimated.

“We’ll attempt to minimize this as much as possible by moving people around,” Jackson told council members.

Jim Tate, president of the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters association, said the city risks a lower insurance industry rating that could lead to higher homeowner insurance rates.

Response times will be “a lot” worse in some areas of town, mainly outside Loop 820, than the average increase, Tate predicted. The city’s fire response goal is five minutes.

“Those averages are going to tell the story,” Tate said in an interview (VIDEO).

More importantly, he said, “in a year when tax revenues are up, why are they cutting pubiic safety? Why are they also increasing homeowners to higher insurance premiums?”

Fort Worth had its last 10-year rating review in 2007 by the Insurance Service Office, a company that rates municipalities on water distribution systems, distribution of fire companies, the equipment, training and communications dispatch. Insurance companies use the ISO’s ratings to set their rates.

In 2007, Fort Worth’s rating crept up into the better “2” level from “3.”

Since 2007, Fort Worth has added fire stations and staffing, and, “also, we have a lot of road improvements, which I think will help,” said Councilman Sal Espino, who represents north Fort Worth.

The city also has two more fire stations — in the far south and the far west — in the staff recommendations for Fort Worth’s May 2014 bond program, Espino noted.

On response times, he said, “you’ve got to break those up” and compare projections for inside the loop to outside of it.

Public safety is key

Public safety has continued to be a hot topic in the city, with the council’s major changes to the employee pension last year, this spring’s completion of a police contract and ongoing fire contract talks overhanging the 2014 budget deliberations.

Fifty-seven percent of the proposed $570 million general fund budget is police and fire. Seventy-three percent is tied up in personnel costs across all general fund departments.

The Fort Worth Police Officers Association has repeatedly issued missives warning of potential deep cuts.

The proposed $204.2 million police budget is an increase of 2.2 percent. The department would lose 46 unfilled officer positions and would have 1,797 authorized. Police cost increases include $1.36 million from the new contract, $236,241 in cost increases connected to the city’s Mansfield jail contract, and $256,376 in technology.

The Fire Department’s share is $117.8 million, down 2.9 percent, mostly because of the elimination of the vacancies. The department would have 919 authorized positions.

The proposed budget for the separate Crime Control and Prevention District, funded by a fraction of Fort Worth’s sales tax, is $59.4 million, up 8.5 percent on projected tax revenue growth.

Police Chief Jeff Halstead reiterated Thursday that he’s OK with the elimination of the police vacancies, because the department cannot now keep up with attrition.

The department had 67 vacancies Thursday, normal annual attrition of 60 officers and best-case graduation of 60 recruits per year, Halstead said. The department has had “well over” an average 46 vacancies for four years, he said.

“In the best-case world from your chief of police, I don’t think I can get us to zero vacancies next year,” Halstead said.

When the city opens its public safety training center, under construction in south Fort Worth, that will dramatically improve the city’s training capacity, Halstead said.

“We are in a good position here,” Halstead said.

“A solid plan”

Sgt. Steve Hall, president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association, said the City Council and Halstead could make the commitment today to fill the positions if they wanted to. Like the fire association, he also warned of long response times in certain parts of the city.

“We are going to have contact with our council persons and try to convince them that a mandate to hire and fill these vacancies is a priority,” he said. The association will also lobby residents.

“It’s their money, and it’s their voice that these men and women [of the police] represents,” he said in an interview (VIDEO).

Councilman Danny Scarth said the police have a solid plan.

“It’s a plan, and we started a big piece of that plan in terms of a facility,” he said.

Code compliance director Brandon Bennett told council members that the proposed cut of five animal control officers would eliminate about a third of that unit’s day-to-day capacity.

Separately, the number of code compliance officers would go to 32 from 37, he said.

Scarth asked City Manager Tom Higgins to look for ways to add more money in the budget to fill some of those positions.

“To me, it could be a false savings to not fill some of these positions,” he said.

Scott Nishimura, 817-390-7808 Twitter: @JScottNishimura

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