A study that could help improve labor relations with the Arlington Fire Department but has been under wraps for a year — to the frustration of many firefighters — will be made public within two weeks, City Manager Trey Yelverton said at a City Council meeting Monday.
Yelverton spoke after a procession of yellow-shirted members of the Arlington Professional Fire Fighters Association stepped up to the lectern, appealing to the council for access to the $25,000 study and insisting they be involved in drafting any changes in how the department operates.
Yelverton said he needed “a week or two” to polish up the report for release. He said the study, conducted by Coleman and Associates in Dallas last summer, will provide strategies to help management and the rank and file communicate and work together better.
The study has been withheld because the city linked it to an internal audit of firefighter grievances that took 11 months to complete, he said. The audit was released last month.
The nine speakers, among 40 association members at the meeting, also contended that the handling of the report is symptomatic of other issues with the Fire Department administration. They want management to be more open and the firefighters to be allowed more say in developing programs and changes that affect them.
“Mayor and council,” pleaded Kevin Leverette, an association vice president and 19-year Arlington firefighter, “something needs to change.”
Deputy City Manager Theron Bowman said in an interview Wednesday that he requested the Coleman study after three years of his own observations of the Fire Department’s inner workings, where he found communication problems, waste of resources and some higher-ranking personnel who weren’t fully earning their keep.
And he found many firefighters resistant to the evolving mission of modern fire departments.
“A number of those employees would prefer to do nothing but fight fires,” Bowman said. “But less than 20 percent of what they do now is related to fighting fires. Most of what the Fire Department does now is related to the medical mission.”
One innovative medical program Arlington implemented a few years ago uses “squads” — pairs of firefighters in SUVs, one stationed on the west side of town, the other on the east side — to dispatch to medical emergencies instead of a firetruck. The squads, staffed 24/7, are faster and more efficient, Fire Chief Don Crowson said.
“We used to send a 40,000-pound fire engine, as opposed to a 4,000-pound Tahoe,” he said.
A month before the Coleman study began, the City Council asked for an internal audit of fiscal questions raised by the firefighters association, which counts all but about 10 of the department’s 323 firefighters as dues-paying members. Association President David Crow said Crowson “is not being transparent with his budget, and not including labor” in budget discussions.
Crowson said he believes in open government finances and practices it.
Particularly galling to firefighters is Crowson’s effort to slash the overtime pay fund, which put the association in the awkward position of recommending against hiring more firefighters during the 2015-16 budget process.
“This is just another example of eliminating a benefit for firefighters, a benefit that has not proven to cost the [city of Arlington] any additional money,” the association said in a letter to the City Council.
Crowson and Bowman argue that using overtime pay to fill gaps in staffing is inefficient and can lead to injuries and stress-related misconduct.
Crowson was granted 18 additional firefighters, which sharply reduced overtime spending. According to the internal audit, monthly overtime expenses over the previous five fiscal years peaked at about $228,000 in both 2012 and 2013, then dropped to $175,500 in 2014 and $169,900 in 2015, reflecting the staff expansions.
His success came at a cost: It “significantly impacted morale” among the staff, he said.
“We corrected the overtime and fiscal imbalance,” Crowson said. “These funds are the taxpayer funds, and we should be running our business operation in a manner that is respectful of their tax dollars.”