Editor’s note: This story was updated to clarify staffing levels at the Houston Fire Department.
Recent discussion of a proposal to change the Houston Fire Department’s shift schedule and absorb potential layoffs through attrition misses the mark, said Marty Lancton, president of Houston Firefighters Union Local 341.
“Any reduction of service is a reduction of service, whether it’s through attrition or layoffs,” Lancton said.
At a meeting of Houston’s Super Neighborhood Alliance on March 11, Houston Fire Department Chief Samuel Peña explained a proposal to stave off 400 layoffs that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has warned of as a way to fund $100 million worth of voter-approved pay raises for the department.
By moving all firefighters to a three-shift schedule in place of the current four, and factoring in annual attrition, the reduction in force could be spread out without leaving a station or engine understaffed, Peña said.
“We have about 150 firefighters that have over 30 years [of experience]and over 200 that have between 25 and 30 years,” Peña said at Monday’s meeting. “I anticipate that when the new pay rate goes into effect, a lot of them will cash out and retire, so I expect attrition to increase.”
The shift change would need to be approved by the union, which Lancton said is unlikely. The Houston Fire Department switched from a three-shift to a four-shift schedule following a federal consent decree in 1993 aimed at increasing opportunities for minority members of the department. This makes the legal implications of a shift change unclear, Lancton said.
“We are focused on following the law,” he said.
While Peña said changing the shift schedule could offset the costs of giving raises to firefighters, the move itself does not save money according to an 2016 report by emergency services consulting group, FACETS Consulting.
“We do not envision any appreciable cost savings in converting to a three shift system,” the report states.
However, the report explains that the city needs a minimum amount of staff needed to operate the department at its current capacity.
“To staff current emergency response units, maintain HFD staffing in emergency operations at a minimum of 3,634 [full time employees],” the report recommends. The department had more than 4,000 total employees with 3,840 assigned to emergency response, according to the city’s FY2019 budget.
However, Lancton said the union cannot support proposals that include a reduction in the total number of firefighters.
“It puts the city at risk,” Lancton said.