Houston Fire Dept. 'severely understaffed' for busy July Fourth weekend

The Fourth of July and the fireworks that come with it can make for a busy day for firefighters. This year’s holiday could be more challenging than ever for the Houston Fire Department as a record number of firefighters are now out of work due to coronavirus.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena told FOX 26 that 300 out of 3,700 of his firefighters are currently quarantined due to coronavirus, causing a severe staffing shortage in a department that was already understaffed due to the ongoing dispute with Houston Firefighters. (https://houstontx.gov/fire/hfd-response-time-model.pdf)

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“Our plan is to staff up every available unit that we have in place,” said Pena.

Houston’s fire chief says his firefighters will be working a lot of overtime to compensate for a severe staffing shortage Fourth of July weekend.

“We have 300 firefighters that are not available for staffing because they are in quarantine, and that number is the highest that we’ve had since this operation began,” said Pena.

Staffing and funding the fire department have been a topic of tension for years between the mayor and the Houston Professional Firefighters Association President Marty Lancton.

“We have been sounding the alarm to the city,” said Lancton. “The Houston Fire Department is severely understaffed, severely under-resourced.”

Lancton says with about a 20% decrease in staffing, the fire department’s command staff is considering putting some fire trucks out of service and temporarily closing some fire stations.

“We could be browning out, could be closing units, fire trucks, increasing response times,” said Lancton.

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Pena says the department will make sure that doesn’t happen. He’s asked for a larger overtime budget to make sure response times to citizens’ 911 calls do not increase.

“I want to thank our firefighters that are doing a great job in coming in and working extra hours, and we’re filling some of these slots on overtime,” said Pena. “We’re gonna continue to do that.”

Firefighters say for the past several weeks they’ve gotten daily calls asking if they’re willing to work another overtime shift.

“When you take out 300 firefighters on top of an already strained staffing table, that has an impact on our ability to serve this community,” said Pena.

To make matters worse, firefighters no longer get double pay for working overtime on big holidays like the Fourth of July. Those sorts of funding cuts have led the department to lose firefighters this year to other fire departments including Pearland and Austin, making the coronavirus staffing shortage an even bigger challenge.

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Houston Mayor Turner has responded to the staffing shortage saying he is authorizing overtime pay for HFD. 

"We will respond when called, but I also encourage citizens to help us by following health and safety protocols during the current public health crisis," Mayor Turner said in a statement. "Please wear a mask, physical distance and wash your hands. Do not use fireworks during the July 4th holiday weekend because they can cause fires and create an additional strain on our resources."