The lack of a permanent chief at the helm of the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department is one of the reasons local firefighters believe the department has seen its worst staffing issues in the last six or seven years.
Executive Director of Public Safety James Barber agrees, telling members of the Mobile City Council’s public safety committee on Tuesday that finding a permanent chief is one of his top priorities in the new role he’s occupied for little more than a week.
“We want to get a leadership team in place,” he said.
While 13 candidates at the rank of district chief or above have applied for MFRD’s top job, current interim Chief Billy Pappas is not one of them.
Though Pappas previously ignored interview requests from Lagniappe, Barber confirmed his absence from the list of candidates Tuesday afternoon.
Previously, Barber said 12 of the 13 candidates were current MFRD employees, with the one outlier being a retiree. They will be vetted with the help of a selection committee made up of Barber, Montgomery Fire Chief Milton Jordan, strategic consultant Dan Lumpkin and a fourth member whom Barber has yet to name.
Matt Waltman, vice president of the Mobile Firefighters Association, asked to meet with the council committee in March to discuss staffing issues, like riding three men to a truck and “brownouts” — the practice of shutting down a truck or company for a shift.
Waltman said he asked for the meeting with the council committee after not getting a response from the administration about those and a number of other concerns.
Following Tuesday’s meeting, Waltman said not having a permanent chief and the lack of communication between Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s administration and the fire chief’s office were among the problems that have lead to ongoing staffing issues.
“I believe it has been a combination of things,” he said. “ … Barber will be able to help us out.”
Going more than three years without a chief has never happened in the history of the city, according to Waltman.
The understaffing has an impact on how effective firefighters can be when they reach a structure fire, according to MFA Secretary/Treasurer Capt. Jimmy Connick. He told councilors that 15 to 17 companies in the city are currently riding trucks with three members instead of the usual four.
This means when firefighters reach a scene of a structure fire, they must wait for another truck to arrive in order to go inside. Regulations require two members to be on the inside and outside of burning structure in case a rescue becomes necessary. However, Connick said more than one truck is always be sent to a structure fire, but if resources are strained — like they are when some companies are out of service — it takes additional time for a second truck to arrive.
While the department has the manpower to staff every truck, every day, Deputy Chef Ken Keller said scheduled and unscheduled leave is part of the problem. On average, he said the department has 18 to 28 personnel members off on any given day. Keller said when faced with this dilemma, the department could pay overtime to another employee of ride some units with fewer personnel.
Barber put some of blame for the ongoing staffing issues on a $1.7 million deficit in the department’s budget, though a group of public safety workers have been able to work the deficit down to about $400,000. Barber also told councilors the deficit was caused, in part, by the $5,000 across-the-board raises firefighters were given at the start of this fiscal year.
Proposed after the Mobile Police Department received a similar salary increase, the MFRD raises were not budgeted for, and Barber said the department had to find ways to make up those costs within its existing budget.
Even with the budget issues, Barber said he didn’t know if what the fire department was dealing with was a true staffing shortage, or an allocation problem.
As an example, he mentioned Montgomery’s fire department. It answers a similar number of calls compared to Mobile but has fewer personnel. The state capital is also able to staff more personnel per truck than Mobile.
While Montgomery has less ground to cover geographically, Barber said their Insurance Service Office score — which measures risk on a scale from “10” to “1,” with “1” being the best — was better than Mobile’s. Montgomery has a “1” rating, while Mobile’s is a “3.”
As to why it has outperformed Mobile, Barber said Montgomery doesn’t serve residents outside of its police jurisdiction — a point that Councilman Joel Daves made him repeat for the council and crowd. Councilman Levon Manzie also pointed that Montgomery does not collect taxes in their police jurisdiction either.
Hinting at a possible policy change, Barber said everyone in the Montgomery Fire Department gets on a truck and is a firefighter. Mobile has a number of sworn firefighters who don’t normally serve on trucks in their daily activities.
Waltman said he would have no problem with that particular policy change, saying “as long as we have butts in seats, it doesn’t bother me.”
Driving the point further, Barber touted his success at getting rid of some of what he called “coffee-drinking positions” within the police department when he took over as chief.
Councilwoman Bess Rich, chairwoman for the council’s public safety committee, said the both sides opened a good dialogue with Tuesday’s meeting. She also said she shared Waltman’s eagerness to solidify the leadership in MFRD.
“The lack of a fire chief has been a big part of why we’re sitting here today,” she told the crowd. “With a permanent chief, you’ll see a lot of this taken care of.”