Where’s the Chief? A News 5 Special Report

Mobile, AL (WKRG)

We’re at day 1,288 without a permanent fire chief in the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department.  It’s a situation unlike anything the city has seen in its modern history.  The absence may be filled sometime in the coming weeks with an official nomination expected soon.  

The issues of public safety and the lack of a full-fledged fire chief came into sharp focus just this week.  This was one explosive example of a truck riding short this week. Three men on a truck instead of four. Matt Waltman with the Mobile Fire Fighters Union has been one of the vocal critics of this practice.

“We’re just lucky no one’s gotten hurt real bad. We’re lucky we haven’t had a fatality,” said the Vice President of the Mobile Firefighters Association Matt Waltman.  City officials say even though this isn’t the ideal situation, it’s a better use of city resources.

“You have a choice between where you ride less engines with four people on them or do you spread them out in geographic locations where you have a faster response time,” said Public Safety Director James Barber.  In the last three months, there’s been just one day where all companies were fully staffed and 34 days where at least one or more units were not running at all.  This is according to the MFRD manpower log.  Fire officials say the practice is common.

This year, a deficit was discovered in our budget that led to a decision to reduce the amount of overtime expenditures. As a result, corrective action was necessary to ensure the sustainability of the budget and help fund pay raises. Overtime expenditures in several of the departmental divisions was eliminated and the department began reallocating resources. In addition, the department is looking at ways to identify areas within the department where changes can be made to “free-up” operational revenue and eliminate the need to remove units from service due to staffing vacancies.
 
A spreadsheet was created in February to track the impact of resource allocation due to reduced overtime expenditures and to establish a definitive baseline as to the correlation between number of personnel off, units riding with reduced staffing, and having to remove units from service. This data will be utilized to identify the minimum amount of overtime funding needed to maintain operational readiness in next year’s budget.  — MFRD Deputy Chief Ken Keller.
No matter how long the practice has been going on, it’s raised eyebrows among the rank-and-file.  Some worry it’s a problem waiting to happen.
“Our mission has been lost,” said a Mobile Firefighter who asked us to refer to him as “Bob.”  Most firefighters we spoke with would only agree to interviews if we concealed their identities out of fear of retaliation.
“Just because we’ve been riding short for so long doesn’t mean it’s okay. I mean one day can change everything,” said “Bob.”  The absence of a fully appointed fire chief has hurt morale and made people wonder about the department’s direction.
“It’s not exactly a rudderless ship. It just kind of keeps moving forward; but nothing is progressing,” said another firefighter.  City officials see the issue differently.  Mayor Sandy Stimpson applauds the work of interim chief William Pappas.  He says they’ve worked to improve conditions over the last four years including raises.
“Better equipment, increased training so to complain about some of these issues overshadows the great things we’ve done,” said Stimpson.   Mobile firefighters say they’ll work despite cutbacks, and it shows. News 5 analyzed thousands of 911 calls since 2013 and found the average response time has not changed.  It’s been hovering around 8 minutes per call.  The data was provided by Mobile County 911.  That’s the average response time of all calls that were dispatched and where a crew arrived on scene.  It does not account for the type of call or severity.

year avg response time in minutes
2013 7.93
2014 8.37
2015 8.37
2016 8.2
2017 8.01
City officials concede they have to do better.  Right now Mobile has an ISO class 3 rating.  That is an insurance rating.  One being the best and 10 being the worst.  Officials say they want to bump that up to an ISO class 1 rating.

“When I visited Montgomery, that also has an ISO Class 1 rating. They also have their ladder trucks with three firefighters on it so you have to be able to determine what are the best practices with the resources that you have,” said Public Safety Director James Barber.  Mobile’s Mayor claims this vacancy has been a top priorit–even though it’s been sitting there for all of his first term. When Stimpson met resistance from the city council on his first and only fire chief pick Randy Smith, no one was put forward until recently. Contrast that with the resignation of public safety director Richard Landolt whose spot was immediately filled.  Whoever is chosen, firefighters hope it’s someone who is intimately familiar with what they do.

 

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