Fire dept. restores idle rigs after 13 months of cutbacks

The department saved $2.6 million between October 2016 and this November by reducing overtime from "callbacks," when staffing falls below minimums

By William Crum
The Oklahoman

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma City Fire Department has returned all of its rigs to full-time service after 13 months of cutbacks imposed to stave off a budget shortfall.

The department saved $2.6 million between October 2016 and this November by reducing overtime from "callbacks," when staffing falls below minimums.

In those situations, firefighters must be called in on overtime to keep trucks and stations fully staffed.

Layoffs were the only other way for the department to cut spending after a 1.25 percent midyear budget reduction was ordered in late 2016, said M.T. Berry, an assistant city manager.

Laying off firefighters can mean taking rigs permanently out of service or closing fire stations.

"It did help us get through," Berry said.

The department resumed fully staffing its apparatus in mid-November.

When the directive was issued, then-Chief Keith Bryant said rigs would be "temporarily and situationally" taken out of service.

The primary target was brush pumpers for fighting wildfires.

Bryant said brush pumpers could be idled on damp days, for instance, when wildfire danger is low.

The policy could produce substantial daily savings.

The department logged savings of $29,400 at least four times, including on Christmas Eve 2016.

The log begins Oct. 8, 2016, when $10,500 was saved by not authorizing overtime for eight vacancies.

The last entry was Nov. 12, when six unfilled vacancies produced $4,900 in savings.

The department estimated it saved 44,639 hours of overtime while the policy was in effect.

Union view

"We didn't like it. I don't think city leaders liked it," said Scott Van Horn, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 157.

Van Horn said the sales tax decline that hit the city in 2016 was the largest "as long as I've got records."

Under state law, Oklahoma City and other cities in Oklahoma are reliant on sales tax to cover day-to-day operating expenses for police, fire and other services.

Oklahoma City saw year-over-year monthly declines in sales tax for about 18 months before a turnaround began last May.

Firefighters referred to the budget-cutting policy as "browning-out rigs."

Van Horn said it was probably the best thing to do, though he had his share of members in his office unhappy about it.

Residents are always safer when response times are low, and response times are lowest when shifts are fully staffed, he said.

Rural safety

"You can't put fire trucks out of service without it being felt," Van Horn said.

Ward 4 Councilman Todd Stone said browning-out rigs was affecting rural corners of the city.

Cutting brush pumpers reduced the safety margin, not just for wildfire, but for emergencies such as medical calls where private roads and driveways are too narrow or rough for a fire engine, he said.

"I can tell you this," Stone said, "There's a lot of other uses for that brush pumper."

Stone also welcomed news that groundbreaking is planned in March for Ward 4's long-awaited Station 29 on SE 164 Street in far southeast Oklahoma City.

Opening the station will reduce response times in rural neighborhoods.

Voters authorized construction in 2007.

Copyright 2017 The Oklahoman

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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