Houston has become the latest U.S. city to scrutinize its fire department’s contracts and work policies in the scramble to fill budget deficits. Houston Fire Chief Terry Garrison plans to save $12.9 million by reassigning 40 firefighters from office to firehouse duties, limiting overtime for training, managing vacation time and outsourcing the department’s uniform shop. The reorganization and cost-cutting plan is the department’s response to orders to help reduce, over the next 18 months, a city budget gap that is approaching $200 million.
Philadelphia, Omaha, St. Louis and West Palm Beach, Fla., are among many other cities whose fire departments are under pressure to cut costs and amend work rules. Key to the Houston reorganization, Garrison explained, is a reduction in the department’s 18 rapid response units to 11. Those units, usually operating in SUVs and not ambulances, provide basic life support and generally do not take patients to the hospital. On Dec. 1, the 14 emergency medical technicians from the disbanded response squads will be assigned to ambulances that provide advanced life support. That will allow ambulance crews to fill in at fire stations where employees call in sick, instead of paying overtime.The reorganization received cautious support from Jeff Caynon, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Union.