IRVING, TX As Irving gets set to open a new fire station next year, a hiring spree could make it one of few area cities with more firefighters than police officers.
For years, fire officials have complained that Irving has outgrown its emergency network. The plan — which could add more than 50 recruits to the just over 300 firefighters now serving — would let engines and ambulances get out faster to neighborhoods that have been left behind.
But others at City Hall worry that squeezing millions of dollars more into an already tight budget could suffocate other departments. As the council ponders whether to approve the hires, it’s already fielding debates.
“The policemen — they’re not feeling the love,” said council member David Palmer. “They’re saying this will be the first time in the history of cities there’d be more firemen than policemen. I don’t know if that’s too broad.”
It is too broad. At least two of Irving’s neighbors, Frisco and Coppell, have more firefighters than sworn police officers.
But many others look more like Dallas and Fort Worth, where badges outnumber hard-brimmed hats nearly 2-to-1.
After buying land this year for a new fire and ambulance station in north Irving — a project that voters first backed in the ’90s and is set to finish construction late next year — the department is recruiting dozens to fill it, advertising starting pay of $4,200 a month.
Add in plans for a new ambulance in south Irving, and fire staffing could eclipse the police force, which has just under 350 officers. It could also add about $4 million to future budgets, Palmer said the city manager’s office told him.
But budget officials have warned the council that funds are scarce all around, leaving some worried that the city will be unable to afford even a handful of new police officers if the Fire Department sucks up all the air in the budget.
“The concern for the fire spending is due to the large increase in the fire budget,” Irving Police Association vice president Travis Hammond said in a statement. “This increase is probably going to affect every city services budget.”
A few weeks ago Hammond wrote to the fire chief, assuring him that police weren’t trying to undermine plans for the expansion, after reports spread through the fire halls that he was meeting with council members about it.
Palmer was one of several city leaders to get an earful from an officer. Over dinner last week, he debated police groups’ concerns with Dennis Webb — one of two retired firefighters on the council.
“The murmuring of the police … simply says you traditionally never have more firemen in a city than you have police officers,” Webb said. “That might be tradition, but as I was telling David, you hire people based on need.”
Frustrated by years of frozen budgets and swelling neighborhoods, Irving’s firefighter association asked its national union to study the city in 2013. The union found that emergency response times lagged behind federal standards in many areas — especially northern neighborhoods such as Hackberry Creek and Valley Ranch.
The report recommended building a 12th fire station, near Interstate 635 and Belt Line Road — and eventually adding staff to the other 11.
At dinner, Webb explained to Palmer why that would be expensive. Even a simple medical call can occupy nearly half a dozen emergency workers: to move the patient, draw the medicine, calm the family and log every move for the hospital.
But Palmer focused on costs: not just to hire new crews but to build a new recruit training center with Grand Prairie and design the new fire station — all of which are in progress.
“I get queasy about spending 425,000 bucks for an architect,” Palmer said. “That seems pretty rich.”
The dissent has been quieter on the top floor of City Hall.
Police Chief Larry Boyd said through a spokesman that he knew of no unhappiness within police groups about the fire expansion, which he declined to comment on.
“The police continue to do a great job with crime reduction,” said Fire Chief Victor Conley. “If there’s a need, I’m sure Chief Boyd will identify it through appropriate channels as we go through the budget process.”
In the meantime, Conley said, “We’re looking at coverage for EMS [emergency medical services] and fire, and we’ve identified a huge hole in the north end of town.”
It takes months to vet, test and train firefighters, so Conley has already started recruiting to hire 54 of them — even though the council will have to approve the money when it votes on the budget in the fall.
While he expects the new fire station to be built, City Manager Chris Hillman said officials haven’t yet decided how many should be hired to staff it, or how much that will cost, or how to pay for it.
“Every year, the council has tough prioritization decisions on the budget,” Hillman said. “There’s never enough funds to manage the many needs the city is trying to address.”
Hillman has warned the council that Irving will need more money just to repair roads in coming years, let alone to expand services.
And yet “the council has prioritized the construction and staffing of Station 12,” Hillman said. “Even before I got here.”
So while the city staff crunches numbers and the council weighs options, police and fire groups jostle in the background.
“I’m a little confused if there’s any validity to the rumors they’re upset,” said Roy Todd Harvey, who leads the the Irving Professional Fire Fighters Association. “We’re trying to fight for one additional ambulance today. But our numbers show we need two, probably three.”
Harvey, a captain at a south Irving fire station that would get its first ambulance under the plan, recalled waiting up to 10 minutes for paramedics to arrive from other stations.
“That’s a long time when you’re doing CPR,” he said. “If you’re the patient or the patient’s family, the 10 minutes is always interpreted as 45 or 30.”
And he said that in north Irving, where a 3-acre wedge of land awaits the new fire station, houses have burned while crews waited for equipment.
Like other firefighters, Harvey pointed to the fire union study — page after page of statistics and maps quantifying coverage gaps. His group started showing it to council members months ago, before most of them warmed to the idea of new spending.
And at that, Texas Municipal Police Association director Kevin Lawrence scoffed.
“I don’t know how many cities would take my word about how many police officers they need,” the labor group leader said.
Police departments in Texas typically run 50 percent larger than fire departments, Lawrence said. He is skeptical whenever cities flip the equation.
“Every city has its own unique demographics that have to be calculated when determining how many police officers and firefighters you end up with,” he said. “I just don’t know that the union is the place you’d turn to.”