More than 100 firefighters gathered outside City Hall Oct. 25 before the New Orleans City Council began its budget hearings for the New Orleans Fire Department (NOFD). Wearing yellow shirts bearing the International Association of Fire Fighters union insignia and the phrase "Support New Orleans Firefighters," the attendees rallied as speakers in the bed of a nearby truck blasted Bruce Springsteen's cover of "Pay Me My Money Down," and other firefighters and their supporters waved signs as cars drove past on Perdido Street.
At the crux of the union's concerns with the NOFD's $86,248,045 budget is staffing, and whether NOFD Superintendent Timothy McConnell is properly budgeted to safely staff stations and engines throughout the city. City Council President Jackie Clarkson's first question to McConnell was whether he has adequate staff. He answered "yes" — which was met with boos from the firefighters and their supporters in the audience.
(Before the hearing outside City Hall, firefighters chanted, "If you don't have four, you need more," referring to fewer than four firefighters operating a truck at first response scenes. NOFD institutes a "two in, two out" policy where two firefighters manage the scene while the others operate the truck.)
"Every department would love to have more staff," McConnell told the council. "We can keep the city safe in this budget."
Union President Nicholas Felton disputed the department's employment figures, which in Landrieu's budget adds 98 employees in 2014. Felton said the city had 824 firefighters in 2005 and 694 in 2013, with 672 now, and 653 proposed for 2014. Felton says 30 more could be lost by December 2014 (McConnell says NOFD loses about 24 employees a year).
McConnell said the department has applied for a federal grant that could enable the addition of another 60 firefighters — the current budget doesn't allow for a recruiting class. Among the NOFD's other goals for 2014: constructing two new fire stations, training for commercial fire inspections and installing fire detectors.
In an email to Gambit, Tyler Gamble, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu, said, "The administration continues to fund NOFD to ensure strong fire protection for the entire New Orleans community. This year the department kept response times consistent and significantly reduced the number of firefighter injuries because of better training. The proposed 2014 budget increases the NOFD's personnel budget by more than $1 million."
Felton told Gambit that Landrieu's response is a "smoke screen," pointing to three studies that conclude the fire department is not applying "industry standards." He added that 65 to 70 percent of NOFD companies are responding understaffed.
McConnell said the average number of firefighters on injury leave dropped from 46 at the beginning of 2013 to 22 this month, with a "light-duty program" that gets injured firefighters back to work sooner. McConnell also said fires in the New Orleans area have decreased from 746 in 2002 to 360 in 2012.
Jerry Sneed, deputy mayor of public safety and homeland security, said NOFD uses "solid information" to ensure it is budgeted and staffed safely.
"We're not looking at population, we're looking at risk," he said. "They have solid information to determine how to best serve this city with data." — ALEX WOODWARD