The Fort Worth Fire Department is expected to be about $1.1 to $1.3 million over budget because of overtime expenses, despite a $3.38 million federal grant to fill positions left vacant because of budget cuts, according to a report at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Last year we reduced the budget by 24 positions, but we were still expected to operate like we had those positions,” said Fire Chief Rudy Jackson.
He said making sure the fire department did not have to deactivate fire companies meant using overtime to fully staff fire trucks and using administrative staff — including trainers, investigators and public education teams — to work on a rotating basis with fire companies to guarantee the city had adequate fire protection.
He estimates that they won’t be fully staffed until July 2015 because of the time it takes to train new firefighters. The 24 positions eliminated in the budget need to go through an 8-month training process, with the first class starting April. In addition, the department needs to hire and train at least another 27 firefighters because of natural attrition.
The $3.38 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response — or SAFER — federal grant the city recently won can be used to maintain the number of front-line firefighters in local communities and can be used to pay salaries of firefighters while they go training, Jackson said.
City council voted unanimously Tuesday to authorize the 24 positions covered by the grant.
U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, announced that the city got the funds earlier this month. The grant program is managed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Grant Program Directorate and supports re-hiring, hiring and retaining firefighters by paying their salaries and benefits over the two-year award period.
The Fire Department was originally facing a $3.8 million cut during budget talks, but officials warned that would lead to a deactivation of four companies a day. A company is one vehicle and its crew.
The city’s budget office restored half of that money, and Jackson said then the department could make do by rotating the administrative personnel.
To cut additional costs, Jackson said the department is holding non-operational vacancies, including a deputy chief position, reducing training costs and delaying technology updates.
“We knew going into this year that it would be a challenge to stay within our budget, with the elimination of the 24 positions and our obligation to staff every firetruck with four persons on a daily basis, we knew we would be starting off every day short about eight positions,” Jackson said.
Response times reviewed
From October 2013 through February, the department’s response time was 5 minutes and 30 seconds, compared to five minutes and eight seconds for the same period last year, but Jackson said the response time was not affected by the eliminated positions.
“Any changes in these metrics have nothing to do with our resource reduction. However, I am more inclined to attribute our response time increases to the growth in the city, especially in outer areas, and all the construction that is going on around the city. It is hard to maneuver in it,” Jackson said.
The department also made it to fewer emergency calls in under five minutes compared with last year. From October 2013 through present, the department made it to 58 percent of calls in five minutes or less, compared to 65 percent for the same period in 2012.
Fort Worth has also seen an unusual number of fatal fires, Jackson said, leading the department to increase education efforts on smoke alarms and fire safety. The department had eight fire fatalities from October to February. The same time last year, they had zero.
On May 10, the department will do a citywide sweep, going door-to-door in neighborhoods, offering smoke detectors and inspections of smoke detectors.
Since October, firefighters have distributed 481 smoke alarms and 427 batteries. Tim Hardeman, spokesman for the fire department, said in an email that 50 to 60 percent of the homes they visit do not have working smoke detectors. Each sleeping quarter and any common areas leading to sleeping quarters should have a smoke alarm.