HFD Chief Peña: No station closures, but changes coming
No stations will close, but significant changes are coming to Houston’s Fire Department as a result of Proposition B, Chief Sam Peña said Tuesday.
“We are not going to be shutting down any fire stations with this proposal,” he said, quashing weeks’ of rumors about station closures.
The chief’s remarks to the city council’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Committee came amid continued public squabbles over implementing Prop B, the voter-approved measure that requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police officers of equal rank and experience.
Peña previously had said that absorbing HFD’s roughly $25 million share of Prop B’s estimated $80 million cost would require reducing hundreds of positions, some of which would come from attrition. Last month, he said he likely would pursue a change in the department’s schedule structure, reducing it from four shifts to three.
He publicly detailed that plan on Tuesday.
It would allow firefighters to work the same 20 24-hour shifts every 72 days, though in some of those weeks they would work more shifts. In others, they would have longer breaks. The current, four-shift model forces firefighters to work occasional extra shifts, though Peña has said there is a high absentee rate on those so-called “Debit Days.” Under a three-shift model, they would get regular shifts off.
“We considered the impact on the community and we believe that, with these recommendations, we are maintaining public safety,” he said.
Peña also laid out updated figures showing how many fewer firefighters the department may employ in the fiscal year that begins July 1. He proposed to further reduce HFD’s head count — last measured at 3,999 — by 287 personnel. The reduction would give the fire department 3,712 employees in its fiscal 2020 budget, or 378 fewer than in 2019.
The reduction includes 67 fire cadets who received 60-day layoff notices last week, Peña said.
He also again called for Prop B to be phased in, which he said would avoid layoffs while allowing HFD to invest in more equipment, among other things. Even before Prop B, he said, he had mulled the idea of switching the department’s shift structure as a way to lower costs.
“It’s not (about) cost saving,” he said. “Now, it’s just about maintaining staffing. This is just about maintaining public safety.”
Marty Lancton, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, disagreed, saying the proposal would hurt public safety “no matter how you spin it, no matter how you discuss it.”
“We absolutely respect and sympathize with (Peña),” he told the council committee. “…But gutting HFD from the inside is not the solution.”
Mayor Sylvester Turner has asked city departments to cut their budgets by 3 percent. That is expected to result in the layoffs of about 100 employees in other departments.
On Monday, he announced that nearly 70 vacant positions from roughly 21 departments will be eliminated.
“They need to be filled, but we are not going to fill them,” Turner said.
The city also is readying to send 60-day layoff notices to another 47 municipal department employees this week.
Some of the pink slips, Turner said, will go to those in “the parks department, the library, public health.” There will be no layoffs at the Houston Police Department.
Reporter Jasper Scherer contributed to this story