Houston fire chief: Department could absorb 240 layoffs with no impact on service

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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.

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  1. Why does Chief Pena feel attrition would increase at HFD? How exactly are HFD’s retirement benefits calculated that would entice their senior firefighters to “cash out and retire” just as their huge pay raise takes effect? What did he mean by that? Was he even asked? Common sense would say they would stick around even longer just to receive some of those big paychecks. Their pay will now be the same as HPD, but the way I interpret Chief Pena’s comment, it seems senior HFD firefighters must get a much better pension than their HPD peers of like seniority.

    • They used to, until Mayor Turner gutted the fire pension. The fire dept decided not to get raises in exchange for a better pension. Now that the pension benefits were cut (many firefighters had huge cuts to their pensions) they decided to try and get a big raise to make up for it. I also don’t understand Pena’s logic here. I too assume those old timers would stay on for the bigger paychecks for a few years to compensate for the pension cuts.

    • Their retirement benefits are tied to their salary. This increase may be enough for some to retire now rather than wait another few years.

  2. Pena is a snake oil salesman. Going from 4 shifts to 3 shifts does absolutely nothing to increase staffing. The only way to increase staffing is to hire more firefighters or make them work more hours per week. If a person works 40 hours per week, it doesn’t matter if they work 5 8’s or 4 10’s, they still work 40 hours per week. Their schedule doesn’t matter, it his how many hours per week that matters. Don’t buy his crap.

    • “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.”

      I take this to mean that this is reducing the overall number of hours worked and thus the amount of pay each firefighter receives which balances out the need to lay people off. Not that this will have the effect of increasing staff artificially as your post suggests. This along with people quitting and retiring.

      This will reduce the number of firefighters working at any given time though, when and how much depends on the work schedule.

  3. The issue is not why is Chief Peña being forced into finding a solution to the fix the “made up,” budget crisis/fire department staffing issue because of Prop B costs? The vast majority of the fire department like the 4 shift schedule the way it is. It ain’t broke so don’t fix it. Peña is an outsider who never worked a day in Houston before being hand picked by mayor Turner to be head puppet/fire chief. He’s wanted to change the shift ever since he was hired as fire chief. It takes a certain amount of manpower to staff all positions daily. By changing from 4 shifts to 3, that manpower number does not change. The city has over 4,000 members in HFD, on the payroll that they are responsible for paying every day. Changing from 4 to 3 shifts does not change that number either. The only way to decrease payroll spending is to decrease the number of employees, which is absolutely the wrong thing to do. The real issue here is why did Ol’ Sly Turner spend $397 million from the general fund in 2018 on thousands of contracts, less than $50,000 each (so he wouldn’t need council’s approval), knowing good and well that Proposition B would pass??? He’s the real wolf in sheep’s clothing and showing his vindictiveness against HFD. Let’s not forget how narrow the margin of victory was over Bill King. Had it not been for the firefighters block walking for Turner, he would not have won. Then the first thing he done after getting into office, him and Joan Huffman gutted HFD’s pension with the unproven “corridor plan” disaster of pension reform. Turner promised numerous times to HFD that their pension was safe with him. HFD went years without pay raises with the understanding that they would at least have the DROP, a great pension when they retire. Pensions were affected drastically, to the tune of up to $150,000 reductions for alot of them under this new pension plan. HPD gave up their DROP pension plan for new hires years ago for a big contract pay raise. HFD chose to keep the DROP and pension and forego the pay raise. Failed contract negotiations were the results of concessions that outweighed pay raises. Bottom line, Turner’s the CEO, so therefore he’s responsible for every dime spent by this city. As taxpayers, you should hold him accountable for screwing this situation into this total disaster that he’s 100% responsible for. The money was there and still is there, he just don’t want to spend it on HFD. His arrogant, pompus “I’m in charge here” attitude has got to go. Demand he opens his accounting book and shows us where the money went, then Sionara Sly!!

  4. 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.”

    Hello, McFly!!!! On what planet does this even make sense. Here ya go, here’s your big pay raise, now you can retire. If someone gets a pay raise, the last thing they want to do is retire. Seriously, this guy has no business being fire chief, and Turner needs to be exposed for all of his shady business deals and lies. I just hope city council can all get together and force this mayor and any future mayor’s to cut the unnecessary spending that’s draining the city. Thank you council men Boykins and Kubosh for taking a stand for what’s right and fighting for HFD.

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Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered health care and public education in Austin.
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