Cut in Fire Department staffing has Chief upset

A proposed 2014 budget that would cut two positions from the Fire and Emergency Department has Chief Shauwn Howell up in arms and he let members of the city council’s public safety committee know about it Monday.

“We’re going backward,” Howell said about the proposal, which calls for 100 firefighters next year. Currently there are 102 positions, and Howell said the recommended number for a city this size is 120.

Howell said a reduction would have “an adverse effect on staffing issues,” and lead to overtime.

“The city is woefully understaffed according to industry standards,” Howell said. “They recommend four people on a truck and we run three and sometimes two. We have to take chances and ask ourselves how many people are enough.”

“We understand the money keeps going down and the costs keep going up,” Committee Chairman Wayne Easterly said. “The size of the city is going down and we don’t know how to fight that. We have to look at what is financially feasible.”

“It’s my duty as chief to let you know we are understaffed,” Howell said.

The department received a grant several years ago that allowed them to hire six firefighters. Finance Director Steve Miller said that grant has run out but the city has enough in reserve funds to cover four of the six positions next year.

“We have the same dollar amount as last year but the costs have gone up,” Howell said. “Insurance, fuel and the like and if we don’t pay overtime, there will be some days when there will be only one truck running in a two truck station.”

The fire department requested $7.476.706 next year but Mayor Debe Hollingsworth cut that to $7,068,435.

“Staffing and overtime is nothing new,” Alderman Bill Brumett said. “We’ve got to do what we’ve got to do.”

The police department asked for almost $11.3 million next year, but Hollingsworth cut that to $10.8 million.

Like the fire department, the police department received grants to hire a total of 11 officers, four of them veterans, and Miller said that while the grant funding is there next year, it will run out in 2015.

One item in Chief Jeff Hubanks’ proposed budget generated questions — a $40,000 line item for training, which Hubanks said will help to reduce lawsuits.

He mentioned in particular the department’s training facility near the Grider Field Airport, which Hubanks said has infrastructure needs.

“The fence is down and the tower the SWAT guys use is so dangerous I won’t let them use it,” he said. “We also need to upgrade the target system to match what ALETA (the Arkansas Law Enforcement Training Academy) is doing.”

Hubanks said he has assigned three officers to the department’s training division, up from one under former chief Brenda Davis-Jones.

“Every time we bring out a new initiative, the guys have to be trained on it to get up to speed,” Hubanks said.

Brummett asked about the possibility of using bond money to make repairs to the department facility and Hubanks said that could be possible, depending on what it costs to refurbish the Joe Thomas Public Safety Center.

“I’m concerned that $1.4 million is not going to be enough,” Hubanks said.