Riding Short

Houston firefighters say the city has been playing Russian roulette by carrying crews of three members instead of four on its trucks. Last October, Jay Paul Jahnke anted up with his life.

For as far back as he can remember, Duke Jahnke says, HFD has tried to staff fire trucks with crews of four. The 67-year-old entered the department in 1955 and rose to the rank of assistant chief before retiring in 1995. Jay Jahnke was his nephew.

"We tried to maintain four on an engine company and four on a ladder company too," he says, recalling his four decades in the department.

HFD blue blood Jay Jahnke was a 20-year veteran of the force.
HFD blue blood Jay Jahnke was a 20-year veteran of the force.

Since 1984, HFD has had a policy of assigning crews of four to both engine and ladder trucks. Attaining that goal, however, has been easier said than done. Many blame the bust years of the 1980s with setting in motion chronic staffing woes. During those days of budget cuts by the Kathy Whitmire administration, the fire department could not escape the guillotine. The academy was shut down; retiring firefighters were not replaced. With- out the regular infusion of young recruits, the department aged and its numbers dwindled by more than 300 to 2,900 firefighters.

In 1993 the Texas legislature passed a measure giving municipalities and their fire, police and other departments the power to negotiate wages and working conditions. Whitmire's successor, Bob Lanier, tackled staffing shortfalls with an overtime program hammered out in 1995 talks with the local union. The two sides agreed on the creation of a program that would enable firefighters to work up to 53 hours for straight pay. Previously, they received overtime pay after 46.7 hours, but the amount of overtime was restricted by budget constraints. Lanier's "extraboard" program, intended as a fix while the city hired more firefighters, was overwhelmingly supported by union members, many of whom worked second jobs and saw it as an opportunity to boost their incomes.

The program enabled the majority of trucks to carry crews of four.

Extraboard "was good for the firefighters and for the city," says Lonnie Vara, the human resources director for the city.

The program was renewed in the 1997 contract. That agreement also explicitly addressed the staffing issue, stating that the city would "endeavor" to put four-member crews on all engine and ladder trucks contingent upon available funding.

With negotiations for a new contract set to commence in 1999, union officials were adamant as ever that trucks be staffed with a minimum of four firefighters. But they changed their stance toward extraboard. New hires had dwindled because of cuts in academy classes, making the department more dependent than ever on extraboard's straight-time overtime scheme. The union now demanded time-and-a-half pay for overtime.

"No other department in the city works overtime hours at a straight- pay rate," says Jeff Cook, a fire captain and union leader, summarizing Local 341's position.

Brown administration officials agreed with the staffing goals but argued that they couldn't be met without extraboard.

The contract talks were marred by accusations from each side that the other was not negotiating in good faith. Talks completely broke down in mid-May 2000, a month before the old contract was to expire. From that point the city stopped funding extraboard, triggering a sharp increase in the number of shorthanded apparatuses. The majority of engine and ladder trucks, sometimes more than two-thirds, now ran with only three people.

During the 2001 legislative session, area lawmakers got into the act. Senator Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, introduced legislation to require Houston to staff fire trucks with crews of four, a measure sponsored by Representative Rick Noriega, D-Houston, in the House. City officials argued they could not afford the estimated $40 million it would take to achieve those staffing goals without drastic cuts to other municipal services.

Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston, tried to jump-start talks between the city and firefighters, going as far as bringing delegates from both sides together in his office to work out differences. By that time the two camps regarded each other with a wariness typically found between warring Middle Eastern factions.

Under pressure from lawmakers, Brown submitted a $68 million plan in April 2000 to achieve staffing goals within six years. The ambitious plan provided for 300 new hires annually through additional academy classes and called for the continuation of straight-time overtime in the short term, with gradual increases in overtime pay. To fund its initiative, the administration proposed rescinding a one-cent property tax rollback, a move that required approval from City Council.

Union officials deemed the plan's straight-time pay system "unacceptable." Lawmakers like Gallegos said it didn't go far enough toward remedying manpower shortfalls. Without the necessary support, Brown scrapped the initiative. Meanwhile, the bills filed by area lawmakers got held up in their respective committees. The legislative session ended with matters still at an impasse.

Today, Gallegos, a 22-year veteran of the fire department before entering the political arena, adopts a diplomatic tone when discussing the deadlock. He blames it ambiguously on "money."

"Whenever we're talking manpower, we're talking money," he says.

The issue has divided City Council along ideological lines. Orlando Sanchez has been sharply critical of the Brown administration's handling of the fire department, and made the staffing question a centerpiece of his mayoral campaign. Other conservatives such as Bruce Tatro say that Brown, a former police chief, created ill will with firefighters by giving preferential treatment to police.

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