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Fire chief says more firefighters and bigger budget needed

Wednesday, June 14, 2023 by Jo Clifton

In a memo dated June 12, Austin Fire Chief Joel Baker gave Mayor Kirk Watson and City Council his proposed road map for reducing overtime expenditures in the department, and it involves a bigger budget and more firefighters.

Baker was responding to an audit of the department’s overtime expenditures released in April. As the Austin Monitor reported, the Austin Fire Department spent $21.1 million in the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, 2022. That was the highest overtime figure ever for the department.

In the memo’s first request, Baker asked for a $2 million increase to the operations overtime budget that will reflect the department’s growing workforce.

Baker’s second request was for $700,000 to fund nine full-time firefighters and equipment that would help cover their colleagues’ leave. (One thing that distinguishes firefighters from many other city employees: When one is on leave, the slot must be filled by another qualified firefighter.)

In his third request, Baker said the department should institute new “two-person squads to cover special assignments and increased call load in specific neighborhoods.” That would add $850,000 for eight full-time firefighters and their equipment in the new squads. This would reduce overtime usage, he said. It might also require a change in the city ordinance governing staffing.

As the chief pointed out, a city ordinance requires that every fire crew have two firefighters, a fire specialist, and a lieutenant or captain. That applies to every shift, every day. When there is a firefighter on leave due to illness or another reason, the department must backfill the vacancy with someone on overtime.

According to Baker’s memo, 60 percent of the department’s total budget goes to salaries and benefits for firefighters. When additional money is needed to pay overtime, the department cuts other parts of the budget, such as allocations for new uniforms and recruiting.

“AFD is required to stay under or at budget every year and the practice of pulling funding from other areas of the department to accomplish this is not sustainable,” Baker wrote.

Overtime is currently budgeted at $9,625,378 for the year, but according to Baker, the number should be closer to $13.8 million. So, the department’s initial request for $2 million comes with the proviso that the number would be adjusted “as evidence is collected regarding the efficacy of strategically adding firefighter positions and operations.”

Baker noted that the audit said the Fire Department should increase the number of firefighters. He pointed out that the department currently has a low vacancy rate – just 1.6 percent of the sworn workforce. He expects that number to improve by the end of the current fiscal year.

However, the department has seen a change in leave patterns since 2020.

From early 2020 to mid-2021, firefighters on sick leave or caring for children, for example, received pay through the federal Family First Coronavirus Response Act. As a result, they did not use city-paid sick leave. That caused a fluctuation in the amount of city funding for sick leave. And the department has seen a significant number of firefighters using “accident leave.” Baker said they are investigating the cause of the change.

The department currently hires 16 firefighters for every new fire apparatus. Twelve firefighters cover three shifts, and four cover leave usage and vacant positions. Baker said that in recognition of the need for more firefighters, the department is asking to increase the number of positions assigned to each unit to 17.

Baker said the department has “experienced an influx of special assignments to address risk management in recent years.” Some examples include:

  • Assignment to the Downtown Rescue Task Force on weekends and holidays to reduce response time for critical incidents.
  • Staffing brush trucks on red flag warning days to address wildfire risks.
  • Staffing boats and rescue units to address flooding risks.
  • Assisting with response to severe weather and shelter operations.

As a result of these extra duties, the Fire Department has spent money on operations outside of its budget. Baker said adding the smaller squads now can help reduce overtime.

“However, this application of the new response protocol would also provide a solid testing ground for adding squads in the future when density and call loads require additional resources,” Baker wrote.

Baker concluded that the department would follow up this initial request with a second phase that would include an analysis to determine whether overtime expenditures, leave usage and emergency assignments have stabilized. He said he foresees requesting an additional eight full-time employees to cover increased leave usage, as well as another eight full-time employees and a pickup truck for a second squad on each shift and to cover emergencies.

Photo by J.Köster, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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