N.O.F.D. leaders, firefighters debate size of budget

In a virtual replay of what took place last year, leaders of the New Orleans Fire Department and the Landrieu administration clashed with members of the firefighters union Friday as the City Council held a hearing on the department’s proposed budget for next year.

The administration has proposed giving the department $86.2 million, a $1.3 million increase from this year, with the extra money earmarked for higher workers’ compensation costs.

Fire Superintendent Tim McConnell, who was appointed to the department’s top job by Mayor Mitch Landrieu in July after the retirement of Charles Parent, told the council he would like to have more money but that $86.2 million is adequate. “I know we can keep the city safe within this budget,” he said.

Asked by council President Jackie Clarkson whether the department is understaffed, McConnell replied, “I believe we are staffed properly.”

That prompted a chorus of protests from more than 100 firefighters, retired firefighters and other supporters in the council chamber. Earlier, they had held a rally outside City Hall to press their main demand, that all pumping and ladder trucks have four-member crews when sent to fires. At present, many have only three.

“If you don’t have four, you need more,” the firefighters chanted at the rally as a portable sound system blared the song, “Pay Me My Money Down.”

After McConnell made the official presentation of the NOFD’s 2014 budget request and council members questioned him for close to an hour, Clarkson allowed Nick Felton, president of the local firefighters union, to deliver a lengthy rebuttal and critique of department policies.

Felton’s presentation was almost a carbon copy of one he delivered at last year’s budget hearing. He even quoted a lengthy exchange from that session between Clarkson and Parent, who — like McConnell this year — told the council he would like to have more money and firefighters but was confident he could protect the city with the numbers he was given.

In the 2012 exchange, Parent said, “We cannot go below 694” firefighters. Yet today, Felton said, the department is down to 672 employees, or 22 below Parent’s minimum, and with attrition it could lose another 30 by the end of 2014. In 2005, Felton said, it had 824.

McConnell said he is able to get along with 22 fewer employees because the average number of firefighters out each week with injuries has been cut from 46 at the beginning of 2013 to 22 today. Meanwhile, he said, the number of building fires has fallen by more than 50 percent, from 746 in 2002 to 360 in 2012, despite the thousands of blighted and vacant buildings that remain in the city.

He noted that under a redeployment plan instituted this year, the department now has 10 percent fewer personnel, with a daily complement of 161 firefighters, down from 179 in 2012. The redeployment kept the same numbers of fire stations and of trucks with pumping capability — what McConnell called those that put “the wet stuff on the red stuff” — but eliminated two ladder trucks.

He said the change also “redistributed personnel to allow four firefighters on engines more often,” but Felton said that on most days, anywhere from five to 25 fire companies have only three firefighters, which he said endangers their lives and jeopardizes the lives and property of residents.

“We are playing with a loaded gun here, boys and girls,” he warned the council at one point.

Felton said the department should have 200 firefighters on duty at a time but the actual number ranges from 136 to 150, well below the figure cited by McConnell. With 136, he said, 23 trucks — 65 percent of the total — are sent out with only three personnel aboard, which he said violates industry standards.

The city has applied for a two-year federal grant that would let it hire 60 more firefighters, and Budget Director Cary Grant said that if the grant comes through, the city would keep the additional hires on the payroll after it expires. That’s what happened after the city was awarded a similar grant that let it hire 78 additional firefighters in 2009.

Officials hope to get word about the new grant this fall. At the moment, no new recruit class is scheduled for 2014, but McConnell said he could pay for one even if the city does not get the grant, using money left available by retirements or other departures. With the grant, he said, there could be two recruit classes in 2014.

Some council members asked McConnell about what they see as gaps or decreases in coverage in their districts, such as the loss of ladder trucks in Districts A and D. Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell said she does not think the Lower 9th Ward is getting adequate coverage, but McConnell said all his decisions are based on hard data, aimed at matching equipment and personnel with demand.

He said the department has maintained about the same percentages over the past decade for arriving at both building fires and all non-medical incidents within its target goal of six minutes and 20 seconds.