As Fort Worth grows at a rapid click, the city is exploring ways for its fire department to keep pace. A new study offers some solutions, but city officials and union representatives are at odds over how they should be implemented.
The more than 300-page study, conducted by Citygate Associates, LLC, was completed Aug. 26. It was commissioned after ongoing discussions between IAFF 440, the union representing Fort Worth firefighters, and city staff, about the best way to staff the department moving forward. IAFF 440 and city council members have both argued the department’s staffing must grow along with the population.
There are several-dozen recommendations in the study, ranging from developing a model to guide future fire station construction to creating a consolidated city communications department from the three current dispatch centers.
“Take this as a best practices tuneup,” Stewart Gary, Citygate’s public safety principal, said in a presentation to City Council members.
Four-person staffing recommended for each engine
In late April, Chief Jim Davis announced a staffing directive to cut down on overtime hours. Under the directive, the department staffed fire engines with three firefighters rather than the customary four for the first five hours of the shift and paid for a replacement for the remaining 19 hours.
The policy was contested by IAFF 440, the union representing Fort Worth firefighters, which submitted a grievance to Davis. That grievance was denied, and the union sued to force arbitration on the issue.
Now, the staffing directive has been quietly reversed, and the union is working to iron out language in its newest bargaining agreement to ensure four-person staffing remains the norm, according to Michael Glynn, president of IAFF 440.
Citygate’s analysis supports the four-person staffing model from a safety perspective; according to analysts, only three fire engines have a light enough workload to drop to a three-person staffing model, and the savings from such a move don’t outweigh potential safety concerns.
“It was temporary, and I think at this point in time we accept the Citygate recommendation and it’s really the chiefs’ preference to have four persons on an apparatus,” Assistant City Manager Valerie Washington said.
The staffing directive was initially rolled out to reduce overtime caused by sudden sick leave. In 2021, firefighter overtime pay more than doubled from the year before — from roughly $14 million to over $30 million.
But the Citygate analysis revealed another driver of overtime costs that has gone unchallenged for years: the loaning of firefighters from their engine to department headquarters. Loaning, or moving a firefighter off their engine and into a headquarters position temporarily, requires that their fire engine position be filled by another firefighter using overtime. Currently, there are 60 positions loaned to headquarters.
“The problem is that people filling the spot up at headquarters are budgeted out to operations,” Glynn said. “They are budgeted on an engine company.”
Budgeting for new full-time employees to fill these headquarters positions would reduce overtime costs, according to the Citygate study. Of the 60 positions, 38 are a priority to fill, according to the study.
Because the city has relied on small-percentage, year-over-year increases to budget overtime, drivers of overtime like loaned positions weren’t accounted for appropriately in budget discussions, according to the Citygate study. As a result, the fire department has underfunded overtime for years. The Citygate study recommends the department create a more nuanced, detail-oriented overtime request model to better budget for the future.
“I think in the fire service, as you’re looking at making sure you have bottoms in the seat to meet your minimum daily staffing numbers, there is a balance between making sure you have your minimum daily staffing and making sure you have the staff to staff the other fire operations,” Washington said.
Disagreements brew over how to tighten up dispatch centers
Public safety departments in Fort Worth aren’t hitting recommended response times for emergency calls. Of the fire department, police department and MedStar, fire is the only department close to meeting national recommendations.
One recommendation to fix the response time problem is to combine the three dispatch centers into a single city communications department. The current emergency call workflow is complicated and often time-consuming, according to the study, and results in lengthier wait times for assistance.
Citygate recommended immediately making the three dispatch centers collaborate to improve the current workflow and technology, and invest in an in-depth operational and fiscal analysis of merging the three dispatch centers in the future.
If the current dispatch centers are merged, the city would consider filling some of those positions with non-sworn personnel.
“There are certainly positions that require a sworn firefighter,” Washington said. “We recognize that, and there are some positions that maybe don’t. The consultant recommended that we spend some time looking at some of those positions that potentially don’t require a sworn firefighter and we would be able to use those sworn resources in a better way. “
IAFF 440 is opposed to using non-sworn personnel in dispatch. Employees without experience in the field would have a harder time staying calm in emergency situations, Glynn said, and don’t have the same mental toolkit to handle a variety of situations.
“Are we really going to make budgetary decisions that reduce the safety of our citizens?” Glynn asked. “And put our firefighters at greater risk?”
Non-sworn personnel would not be included in IAFF 440’s bargaining unit, unlike current sworn firefighters working in the dispatch center. Glynn said the current hiring environment would not be friendly to the city’s desire to hire at-will employees and pointed to the low turnover rate of firefighters.
“What we’ve got, is we’ve seen managers trying to find ways to not hire as many civil service firefighters, and I don’t know why,” Glynn said.
As the city grows, more fire staff needed
The city broke ground on construction of the new Fire Station 45 last summer. Citygate now recommends staffing it with an engine, quint/ladder (which combines the capabilities of a fire engine and a ladder truck) and a battalion chief as soon as possible. The station is scheduled to open this month, and the study found adding these staff will improve fire coverage in the north significantly.
In addition, the city has bought land for Fire Station 46 in the southwest. The building has not yet been designed, and staffing plans have not been released. Citygate cautioned that stations 45 and 46 would not be sufficient to cover the growing areas in coming years, and recommended City Council identify a trigger point to add fire stations that coincides with population growth.
The new station employees, along with the proposed headquarters positions, would require an increase in budgeted employees for fiscal year 2023. City Council members initially wanted to fund 25 new positions last year, but compromised pending the staffing study to fund 10, based on city manager David Cooke’s recommendation.
Council members expressed anger and concern that they received the staffing study so late in the budgeting process. When Gary, Citygate’s public safety principal, presented the study findings to council members in late August, they only had the full study in their hands for less than 24 hours.
“We said we would agree to 10 firefighters if we had the staffing study,” District 9 Councilmember Elizabeth Beck said. “It was my direction, and I was very clear that this should happen before budget discussions.”
Cooke acknowledged that the staffing study was completed later than hoped, but said the time was worth getting a solid, comprehensive study to build on in the future. He said the current budget proposal funds 23 new positions for the fire department.
“What you’ve got is a recommended budget before you that includes some of the recommendations we knew were coming,” Cooke said. “There are some key policy choices that will come before the council.”
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.