The city of Sugar Land is short staffing fire stations and risking public safety and firefighter safety, according to the head of the fire department union.
The city calls it “cross-staffing” and “resource allocation,” but no matter how it’s described, “this practice will leave citizens without full fire or EMS coverage,” said Tom Anderson, president of the Sugar Land Professional Fire Fighters Association.
Anderson sent his concerns, in a three-page letter to City Manager Allen Bogard on Dec. 8. The mayor and council were copied on that letter.
The city did not respond to that letter so Anderson wrote a second letter on Dec. 20 requesting meetings with Bogard, the mayor, and the city council.
“Our association remains concerned that further staffing reductions or short-staffing models likely will cause unsafe conditions for the public or firefighters. We also continue to urge the city to conform to national fire service standards that recommend four firefighters per apparatus and two paramedics per ambulance 365 days per year, 24 hours per day, 7 days a week,” he wrote.
But the city, through spokesman Doug Adolph, said that studies show they are fine. He said fire service stations have changed and there are not a lot of fire calls now.
“The vast majority are EMS calls, so placing an ambulance at Station 7 enhances services. Call volume for EMS is 15-to-1,” added Adolph. Station 7 is in New Territory, which was recently annexed to Sugar Land.
“We were providing fire service through contract. After annexation, we took over EMS to replace county ambulance and added new staffing and added seven new firefighters. By adding an ambulance at Station 7 we replaced one with two. We’ve done three different assessments. We have a city-wide program of department assessments and the fire department assessment occurred last year,” Adolph said.
In the letter, Anderson noted that the city, union, and fire chief have worked together in the past to address staffing issues.
For example, when the city proposed closing fire stations or certain fire apparatus during periods of high EMS calls two years ago, the union balked and the city responded by using mutual aid agreements with outside EMS providers, the union president stated.
But two years later the policy returned, starting with the New Territory Fire Station 7 on Territory Bouleverd.
Anderson said the city wanted to use the “short-staffing model” throughout the city but opted to gather data as they try it out at Station 7 in New Territory.
Here is how it works. When a call comes in as a fire or medical emergency, fire personnel have to choose between responding with fire trucks or ambulances. The problem comes where there is a fire and the firefighter is in the ambulance. They have to wait for another fire truck or ambulance.
“This practice will leave citizens without full fire or EMS coverage,” said Anderson.
He said the International Association of Firefighters conducted a comparison response study.
“For us, during certain times of day and certain days of the week, we would only cover 8 percent of the city,” Anderson said.
The city, however, conducted three separate studies over a 10-year period that shows the city is safe. Studies for the city manager were conducted by the Center for Public Safety Management, which includes the National Fire Protection Association, the Center for Public Safety Excellence, and the International City Manager’s Association, Adolph said.
“The assessment team recommends cross staffing. We are doing it at Station 7 for six months and then will make a decision. We have seven stations strategically located. We can quickly respond and we have mutual aid agreements,” said Adolph.
Anderson said he wants the city to staff all front-line ambulances in stations 1, 2, 4 and 6 and all future frontline ambulances with “at least two personnel, preferably paramedic EMS certification level at all times.”
He also urged the city to staff all fire trucks with at least four personnel – a lieutenant, engineer/operator, and two firefighters.
The city staffs three on trucks and two on ambulances.
“We’ve done so for three years now. The staffing level was identified by industry experts who conducted an assessment that assisted us in evaluating ambulance transport to improve public safety,” Adolf said.
Anderson said he and the other union leaders are uncomfortable witht eh city’s plan.
“I’m not a politician. This is not a comfortable arena for us. We work with citizens and emergency situations,” he said. “We don’t think city management and the council are a bunch of demons or devils. I think they have the best interest of the city in mind, but some decisions need to look at closely, not dictate policy from managers. Those guys are not firefighters or fire administrators,” Anderson said.
“It’s really important that we keep the proper number of firefighters available to respond to keep the community safe; we have a safety issue, not a budget issue,” he said. “The city is taking firefighters out of the community and affecting their ability to respond to emergencies. We are currently trying to work with the city to mitigate our concerns. Emergency service should be consistent throughout the city and equally available. Sugar Land firefighters come to work every day to do everything possible to ensure the safety of our citizens, regardless of any challenges they face. Our firefighters are the best in the country and are devoted to excellent customer service and safety to everyone in Sugar Land.”