Last night the Safety Committee conducted a public hearing on the topic of fire department manning. The EFD and Mayor put on presentations and questions were fired back and forth, then the meeting was opened up for questions from the general public. The meeting was a like a fight that spills out into the street: a lot of people were involved, nobody wins and everyone suffered.
It is clear after last night’s meeting that the EFD and the Mayor are working on completely separate plans for this department. Their positions are diametrically opposed and there is little room for common ground or agreement. After listening to this frustrating exchange for several hours, trying to digest all of the information presented, it became clear that the Mayor and his department are not communicating, are not sharing information and are not working together to solve the problem. As a result, the Committee voted for an independent audit.
There are clear problems on both sides of the argument. The EFD has assessed its needs but has not shared its data and source information with the Mayor. The Mayor has performed a completely independent review of the department’s needs and response capabilities without consulting with the experts who do the job every single day in our City. The best thing that could happen for the City is if the Mayor and the EFD would get together, share information and ideas and work together to solve this problem. We already have resident experts in fire prevention in our own EFD and they are paid good money to be these experts. It is obvious that the administration is not using them as a resource. Likewise, the EFD needs to be flexible enough to honestly listen to the questions and suggestions of the administration and find ways to improve its services so that the City can save money. I have not yet met a firefighter who has denied that there is room for improvements and cost savings within that department.
An independent audit could be very costly, depending upon the depth and breadth of the investigation. Some residents are calling for an audit of all city departments to find room for cuts and improved efficiency. Others simply want an objective review of the EFD’s manning, resources and stations (number and location). If an independent audit is to be conducted, these parameters must be set in advance. My reservations regarding an independent audit include the fact that an audit will cost a significant amount of money and there is no way to guarantee that the administration and the EFD will abide by the results. And we cannot have such a guarantee because: 1) it would be like providing a blank check; and 2) either the EFD or the Mayor is unlikely to concede that the findings are accurate if they are radically different from the positions currently taken by either side. The difference, of course, is that the Mayor has the authority to implement his changes within the EFD at any time but the EFD must be empowered to make changes it feels are appropriate.
The Law Director asked an interesting question last night to the Mayor. He asked the Mayor if he is seeking to have Council determine whether or not to make his proposed changes (including the closing of Station #2, shifting the dispatch duties to the Police Dispatchers and changing the minimum manning level of the EFD). The Mayor agreed that this is what he is trying to do. Is it Council’s place to make these determinations? The Mayor did not seek Council’s permission to lower the minimum manning levels from 17 to 14 and close Station #2 in the first place. Years ago, the administration made the policy decision to pay overtime to the EFD rather than hire additional firefighters with the belief that it was less expensive to do so, although this policy decision was not mentioned when the EFD made the top ten list for highest paid City employees.
Decisions about minimum manning per shift, number of department personnel, dispatch duties and number of operating stations should be resolved by the administration, which includes the Mayor, SSD and the EFD. Although City Council is happy to provide a forum for discussions and to facilitate public hearings, these are not issues that are properly before City Council unless there are requests to change the allocation of monies in the budget to fund the goals for this department. Such goals should be agreed upon and presented jointly by the Mayor and the leaders of EFD. Their failure to do so will result in this City spending more money for someone from the outside to come in and tell us how best to run our City—a decision that City Council will be forced to make to break the deadlock. That is money that could be better spent paving streets or hiring additional police and fire personnel.
What we have here is a failure to communicate. Residents of this City are tired of the bickering back and forth between the Mayor’s office and the EFD. I heard some of the firefighters say last night that they are also tired. It is time for our these leaders to come together in the interest of doing what is best for the City, find some common ground and start offering joint solutions.