Mayor Sandy Stimpson announced Sept. 8 that he was rescinding his nomination of Randy Smith for chief of the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department.

Stimpson said the leadership and progress within the department hasn’t met his expectations.

Randy Smith

Randy Smith

“Since November, we have worked to address the transformational opportunities with the MFRD – operationally, functionally, financially and personnel-wise,” Stimpson said at a press conference. “We are now at a crossroads where I need to make a personnel decision so that we can continue to move the city forward under the vision I’ve cast.”

Assistant Chief Billy Pappas, the highest ranking officer in the department, will handle the day-to-day operations of the department until a new chief is named, Stimpson said. Smith will return to his previous duties as a deputy chief.

Stimpson’s Chief of Staff Colby Cooper said the action was not a demotion, but rather a “change in direction” because Smith was never officially given the title of chief or the subsequent pay raise. Smith earns $96,056 per year as deputy chief, Cooper said, while Pappas earns $106,027.

“I have great respect for Randy Smith,” Stimpson said. “I value his steadfast service to the city of Mobile for over three decades.”

Stimpson didn’t take any follow-up questions at the press conference, citing Smith’s “good name and character.”

Executive Director of Public Safety Richard Landolt declined to release the names of possible candidates for the position, saying “I am vetting a lot of people.” In an interview Aug. 29 Lagniappe learned that Capt. Jason Craig was being considered for the job. Sources within the department said promoting a low-level captain to the position of chief would be unprecedented. There is no timetable on the naming of a new chief.

Fire station consolidation

Landolt also introduced the possibility of consolidating Central Fire Station and Reid Station downtown into a new facility near Beauregard Street and consolidating Rehm and Ashland stations in midtown into a new state-of-the-art, multi-service “megastation.” Landolt said the rationale for the consolidation would be to update stations that either are in need of major repairs, or don’t get much use.

Later, Dewayne Patrick, president of the Local 1349 branch of the International Association of Firefighters, said he has no problem with consolidating stations to make way for new facilities, as long as there is no reduction in equipment, or personnel and response times stay the same.

“We have no problem with new updated fire stations, as long as we don’t lose the apparatus we have,” Patrick said.

It’s important to keep the equipment and personnel in place because the department is seven or eight stations short and “can’t afford to lose a ladder company,” Patrick said.

Among the department’s more than 20 fire stations, Ashland and Reid received the least amount of calls for service in 2013. Ashland, located at 2407 Old Shell Road, had 882 calls for Engine 12. Reid Station, which houses Engine 21 at 512 Stimrad Road, received 367 calls for service last year.

While 367 calls isn’t very busy, Patrick said that station is responsible for a lot of the heavy industry in the area.

Rehm station, located at 3200 Moffett Road, received 2,207 calls last year, split among engines 10 and 15, as well as Hazmat 15.

Central station, located at 701 St. Francis St., is one of the department’s busiest stations with 4,780 calls last year split among Engine 3, Rescue 3 and Truck 4. It is also one of the oldest, as it opened in 1925.

Patrick, who’s a driver at the department, said he’d personally hate to see Central close, having spent 18 years there.

“It’s one of the best built fire stations and there’s a lot of history to it,” he said. “I’d hate to see it go away.”

As the union representative he said he’s not against anything being updated for members.

Meanwhile, Landolt dismissed local firefighter unions as “advocacy groups.” Patrick said it’s incorrect to say the Local 1349 is not a union, although new hires are not required to join. The local group has about 200 retired members and 300 active members, Patrick said.

The IAFF has 300,000 members throughout the U.S. and Canada. The main concerns for leaders are benefits and wages for members.

Fire protection rating

Mobile’s fire protection rating could also be affected by a change to the number or location of stations. Landolt said previously that he would look at studies related to response times before the plan takes off while Patrick has asked the IAFF to send Landolt a report outlining Mobile’s response capabilities. Patrick said he told Landolt and Mayor Sandy Stimpson about the report.

“We’ll see where our weak points and strong points are,” he said.

He said anything in the four minute to eight minute range for response times is OK.

“Eight is the most you want to do,” Patrick said.

A bad fire protection rating, which is based on equipment, response times and crew size, among other things, could result in an increase in insurance premiums for the area.

Patrick said the department has run into this problem before when they didn’t have enough personnel to cover all of the equipment.

“Ours went up a couple years ago when we were riding short,” he said. “We were riding with only three people on some apparatus, but went back to being fully staffed about a year ago.”

Although the department is no longer “riding short,” personnel levels are still an area of concern for the union. In fact, Patrick said the department is about 100 firefighters short and that number will increase to 115 to 130 by next year.

“We’re losing people left and right,” he said. “We’re losing them for better jobs, pay and benefits.”

He said the department is the second lowest paid in area, with Prichard being the first. Mobile firefighters start with salaries of $29,361 per year.

Patrick said the department hasn’t hired a new class in about a year or so.

Community reaction

Residents in and around the Ashland Place neighborhood don’t want to see the Ashland fire station be closed and possibly sold. Residents said they felt it was part of the community and part of what made the community what it was.

“We like it and we like having it here,” Woodlands Avenue resident Wylly Stirling said. “It’s part of the neighborhood.”
She said the community doesn’t need a megastation.

“Bigger for us would not be better,” Stirling said. “That one truck is what we need when we need it.”

Patricia Hunter agreed. She said she remembers the quick response of firefighters when she had a kitchen fire.

“They’re wonderful and very responsive,” she said. “They were here immediately, within two minutes.”

Patricia Hunter said she has cooked for the firefighters and brought it to them. The firefighters have also been very good with the children in the neighborhood, she said.

Homes in the neighborhood tend to be older and a quicker response time is necessary for older wooden homes, Dr. Boyette Hunter said.

“It could be a matter of minutes,” he said. “It’s a historic neighborhood and it’s old homes with historic significance.”

Follow up to the story “Smith’s nomination for fire chief rescinded” published by Lagniappe on Sept. 8, 2014.