HOUSTON — The Houston Fire Department said its firefighters are running on empty as they try to keep up with the city’s pandemic surge. HFD Chief Sam Pena said about 300 firefighters are in quarantine. Pena said the ones not in quarantine are overworked and there is no end in sight.
“Yes, they’re being stretched thin, and yes, they’re being overworked and it is stressful for them,” Pena said. “There’s no question Houston firefighters are working long hours, they’re working extra shifts, and it’s all a result of the impact of the staffing that we’re having to deal with right now.”
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Firefighters who are able to work are facing an increasing number of emergency calls and work shifts that can last multiple days.
“We have firefighters who have been at the station for two and three days at a time and cannot get relief,” said Houston Professional Firefighters Association President Marty Lancton. “Firefighters who work their regular shift, who are supposed to get off, who need to get off, to take care of their family or take care of their mental or physical health, they don’t have firefighters to replace them.”
Lancton and Pena both agreed there is a staff shortage that is exacerbated by the pandemic, however, they disagree on how the shortage began.
Lancton said the shortage was identified in a study performed years ago which was dismissed by city administrators. Pena said the shortage began after departmental cuts that came in 2019 following the passage of Proposition ‘B’ which increased Houston firefighter pay.
“We came into fiscal year ‘20 with about 300 firefighters short, and on top of that, we have about 300 firefighters that are out of the game on quarantine,” Pena said. “So that’s putting an enormous amount of strain on our staffing abilities.”
Pena said there has also been a higher-than-expected number of firefighters leaving the department this year. The number of emergency calls has continued to rise as the virus spreads.
But firefighters must continue with their normal duties in addition to the respiratory distress calls. Pena said there’s not a quick solution in sight.
“We have been approved to hire 280 firefighters in fiscal year ‘21,” Pena said. “The process just takes so long so I won’t see any of these firefighters for another nine months.”