Faced with voter-approved pay raises, Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña told neighborhood leaders he would not have to lay off any firefighters or reduce service if he were able to phase in the reduction of staff over time.
“Give me some time, expand the runway a little bit, and we can absorb all these positions to where nobody gets a pink slip,” Pena said at the Superneighborhood Alliance meeting March 11.
In an effort to comply with voter-approved referendum, Proposition B, which ensures pay parity between Houston’s police officers and firefighters of comparable position, the city is examining options to come up with funding to close the gap between the two entities’ contracts, which could cost up to $100 million per year, according to Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office. Latest proposals estimate the fire department would need to eliminate 378 firefighter positions to fund the pay raises, Pena said.
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.
The fire department’s current four-shift schedule requires additional staff on-hand each shift to account for the number of firefighters off on any given shift for sickness, vacation and injury. By moving all firefighters to a three-shift schedule with a greater number of firefighters on duty per shift, the department eliminates the need for the extra staff on-hand needed on a fourth shift.
“I can absorb 240 positions and still be able to fill every seat that we have space for right now,” Pena said.
In addition, Peña estimates the department loses 150 to 160 firefighters on average per year to attrition, but that number may be higher after pay raises are factored in.
“We have about 150 firefighters that have over 30 years [experience]and over 200 that have between 25 and 30 years,” Peña said. “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.”
Peña said if he, along with city staff, have time to work on a budget and approve a new staffing schedule, implementing the raises will not leave the city underserved.
“We still want the same level of service, but if we can do it more efficiently, by how we deploy our units and how we staff, I think that’s a better approach to create some financial capacity to reinvest in the things that we need,” he said.