Union: Safety an issue
Timothy McConnell can still remember his friend Nicholas Felton boasting that he would lead the firefighters union some day. And he can still remember the competing prediction he shot back: That he, McConnell, would lead the whole department as superintendent.
They were both first-year recruits at the time, almost 30 years ago.
It took longer for McConnell to make good; he only stepped up to lead the New Orleans Fire Department last month, Irish features and a pushbroom mustache complementing what now seems like an inevitability. Felton won election as head of the New Orleans Firefighters Association, Local 632, more than a decade ago.
But if that all sounds apocryphal, a little too good to be true, it’s worth pointing out that both men did agree to the account — at a time when they seem to agree on little else, at least as concerns the Fire Department.
Felton still calls McConnell a good friend. McConnell still refers to Felton as “Nicky.” But they now find themselves on opposite sides of an argument over the future of firefighting in New Orleans and the question of whether Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s budget decisions amount to a gamble with public safety.
Felton argues that New Orleans needs to hire more recruits to provide adequate fire coverage, something the city hasn’t done since it won a federal grant to shore up the department’s ranks in 2010.
“Politically, they don’t want to say they’re compromising on safety,” Felton said, “but they are.”
As the debate over next year’s budget approaches, costly plans for the police department and the local jail complex have prompted most of the hand-wringing. In Felton’s view, though, officials are ignoring an overstretched Fire Department at the city’s peril.
McConnell, an appointee of the mayor, insists otherwise.
“Nicky is saying that because he wants to keep the numbers wherever they are,” he said. “I make my decisions based on hard data.”
McConnell said the Fire Department is adequately staffed, pointing out that even with reduced numbers, the department is getting the right number of personnel to fires within the city’s goal for response times in 75 percent of cases.
Concern among the rank-and-file about their numbers won’t be McConnell’s only challenge as he takes over.
One is simply following after Charles Parent, who led the department through Hurricane Katrina, when fires erupted in the wake of the flood. While his police counterpart, Eddie Compass, lost his job over the disorganization that afflicted the force, Parent soldiered on with his reputation intact. When he retired last month, the City Council gave him a hero’s exit, recalling his work during the storm. Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell called him “one of the best fire chiefs in the U.S., probably in the world.”
Then there is the bleak prognosis facing the Firefighters’ Pension and Relief Fund, which has the city’s firefighters and Landrieu’s administration in a protracted court battle over how much money the city has to put up for retirement costs.
On that front, McConnell acknowledges that the city faces a potential disaster. He said it would be “catastrophic” if City Hall has to pay what Civil District Court Judge Robin Giarrusso ordered Landrieu’s administration to cough up for the fund immediately back in March: $17.5 million.
The city is appealing for a new civil trial in that case, and McConnell backs the mayor’s argument that firefighters pay too little into the fund for the amount of money they end up taking out.
“What firefighters contribute should be in line with what other city employees are paying,” he said.
In fact, Landrieu has pressed the case that swollen firefighter pensions have a direct impact on the issue that most concerns the firefighters union: Manpower.
It’s a debate that played out in miniature last week during the first of a series of public meetings on next year’s budget. As Landrieu took comments from residents, Felton stood up and warned that attrition in the department has left “our citizens in greater danger as well as our firefighters, who are putting their lives on the line every day.”
Felton brought up a three-alarm that had struck Uptown on Milan Street the day before, just as another call -- a false alarm, as it turned out -- came in from Gentilly, forcing the department to call its only ladder truck in Algiers to the East Bank.
Landrieu pushed back. He said, “I love firefighters,” but added, “I want to separate for you the individual firefighter, the work that he does every day and how much we pay for their pensions” because the expense is “directly related to how many firefighters we have and how many police.” With pension costs eating up one in every $10 the city spends, Landrieu said, the department is already sucking cash from other city agencies.
In an interview this week, Felton acknowledged that the money for more firefighters will have to come from somewhere, and that expanding the department will inevitably mean pain elsewhere. He argued that they mayor should do it anyway.
Felton said too many engines are heading to fires without the standard complement of four firefighters on board. Four people can carry out the usual “two in, two out” operation, in which one firefighter gets water flowing from the engine truck, another sets up a connection with the nearest hydrant and two more head into the burning building. With only three on board, Felton said, they have to make a choice about whether to send someone into harm’s way on his own, a more dangerous scenario.
Right now, the department has about 675 employees, but only about 170 people actually available to respond to fires at any one time. Felton argues that at those levels, if two big incidents were to strike at the same time, the city could be unprepared.
“It all boils down to politicians making tough choices,” Felton said. “Maybe we have to wait to fix our streets a little bit longer.”
Cutbacks at the Fire Department have not drawn the same kind of outcry that deficiencies on the police force have, but at least one neighborhood has brought objections to City Hall. The neighbors around Ladder Truck No. 5, one of two trucks recently decommissioned as a part of the department’s “redeployment strategy,” managed to get meetings with both McConnell and Landrieu to air concerns, but they didn’t succeed in changing minds.
Susan Krantz, who lives across the street from the fire station on Arabella Street, said neighbors fear the city will let attrition continue without getting a new recruiting class started, which could take more than a year to actually put new firefighters into service. She said they’ll be showing up at this year’s meetings on the budget to press for more manpower.
“We’re at a critical point right now,” Krantz said. “The city is growing and we’re shrinking fire coverage with no plan to put any back.”
McConnell, who authored the department’s redeployment strategy as Parent’s No. 2, argues that New Orleans has plenty of firefighters and that the department has reorganized in order to cover the same area with fewer people.
He pointed out, for instance, that the department used to maintain two heavy rescue vehicles with eight firefighters dedicated to each. Now, eight of those firefighters are prepared to respond to more routine incidents on regular fire trucks. All of them are still trained for special rescue operations, McConnell said, but now they’re more efficiently deployed.
And while the number of firefighters in New Orleans has shrunk, he acknowledged, so has the number of fires — from 746 in 2002 to 360 last year — a phenomenon he attributes to the city’s prevention efforts.
McConnell will take more firefighters if he can get them. The department is finalizing an application for another federal Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency grant, which would add another 50 or 60 personnel.
But he is more eager to talk about how the department can stop fires from happening in the first place. McConnell said his goal is for the department to inspect all of the city’s roughly 10,000 commercial properties every year, a job that he is still training more firefighters to do. The city’s last quarterly progress report noted that the department only did 586 commercial inspections in the first three months of the year.
At that rate, it will take nearly five years to complete 10,000 inspections.
“Every fire should be seen as a failure,” McConnell said. “That’s how you’ll get the best service to the citizens of this city.”
Editors’s note: This story was changed Aug. 19 to correct the location of the three-alarm fire cited by Nick Felton, the head of the firefighters union. The fire was Uptown, not in Algiers.