Councilors questioned administration officials Wednesday over the temporary closure of fire stations, known as “brownouts.”
The brownouts, where a Mobile Fire Rescue Department truck or company is temporarily taken offline, have started due to concerns over the budget and for training purposes, Public Safety Director Richard Landolt told councilors during a pre-conference meeting.
“We’re in the risk-taking business … and risk will never be zero,” he said.
Landolt told councilors that the closures are for less than 24 hours and rotate from day to day.
“We try to spread the risk around,” he said.
A number of councilors and a member of Mobile Firefighters Association had concerns over the practice.
Councilman Fred Richardson initially asked Landolt about the closures. Specifically, he said he wanted to know if the brownouts were occurring at inner-city stations. Landolt said he would gather information and report back to the council.
At the end of the regular meeting, Richardson said he looked forward to discussing the issue with the administration. Councilman Levon Manzie echoed Richardson’s comments.
Councilwoman Bess Rich asked Landolt for a list of response times for each station, as she had concerns over some West Mobile stations.
Councilman Joel Daves told his colleagues that if they were truly concerned about response times they should’ve voted to withdraw from the outer band of the police jurisdiction. Rich said it might be time to revisit that.
Following the meeting, Matt Waltman, vice president of the Mobile Firefighters Association — International Association of Firefighters Local 1349 — said a new policy that allows the District 1 chief to “coordinate manpower for daily units” based on call volume has resulted in the closure of Station 21, at the entrance of the now-vacant Josephine Allen Homes in Plateau, since Saturday, Feb. 25 and the taking of one truck permanently out of service. Further, Waltman said the new policy has not yet been made public.
Residents who live near Josephine Allen will have to rely on service from either a station in Toulminville, or the station downtown, Waltman said. He added that while the administration has tried to add personnel from 21 to the other stations in question, the closure could still result in a domino effect. For instance, he said the other stations could be out on calls when another call meant for Station 21 comes through.
Today, units in Plateau, West Mobile and northwest Mobile are being temporarily closed, according to the union’s Facebook page.
In an email following the meeting, Landolt wrote that the plan was a “work in progress.
“The bottom line is that I’m looking at some numbers early in the fiscal year that are unsustainable and so I’m pulling a team together to see where we can make some efficiencies happen,” he wrote. “We’re looking at other places too where we might take some risk so that the risk is shared.”
Waltman and Landolt agree that the Plateau station has low demand and low volume. Landolt added in the email it was a place where “we can take some risk.”
In a recent meeting with interim Chief Billy Pappas and administration officials, Waltman said they were told the policy was put into place because the $5,000 merit raises approved by council during budget negotiations were affecting funding in the department’s operational budget.
Waltman said the policy was political in nature, but stopped just short of calling it a retaliation for getting the raises, after the department was initially offered $1 million to disperse as bonuses to firefighters.
“All roads lead to that suspicion,” he said. “We’re not trying to bash the mayor. “He and the council are doing great things, but there is a great disparity between how we’re being managed by 205 Government St. and how other departments are being managed.”
In other business, the council delayed a vote on the installation of more than 1,000 new seats at Hank Aaron Stadium. Councilors had questions about how a contract for more than a $100,000 to purchase the seats could’ve been authorized without their consent.
Acting Chief of Staff Paul Wesch told councilors the seats were purchased through a cooperative purchasing agreement and that the contract was part of a $200,000 capital improvement project council already approved. He said in this case the seats were purchased separately after the fact in an attempt to save money.
Wesch said the purchasing order would come before council next week for authorization. The council approved a contract with Harwell and Company LLC., for sidewalks and infill along Dauphin Island Parkway. The contract is worth $185,000, but $148,000 of that comes from grant funds.