New Orleans FFs already feeling impact of furloughs: 'It's going to get worse'

Firefighters said three trucks were out of service on Sunday due to the city's new rules requiring all firefighters to take at least six unpaid days off by the end of the year


Jeff Adelson And Emily Woodruff
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS — The first New Orleans firefighters were furloughed on Sunday under a plan requiring six unpaid days off by the end of the year to help stem a precipitous decline in city sales tax revenue during the coronavirus pandemic.

The city’s furlough requires almost all 4,700 employees to take the six unpaid days, including police, firefighters and other safety workers, reducing their salaries by about 10% and saving the city $6 million.

New Orleans' firefighters' union says the city's furloughs have had an impact on service. The city has required nearly all of its public employees to take at least six unpaid days off before the end of the year in order to offset COVID-19-related budget issues. (Photo/New Orleans Fire Fighters Association Facebook)
New Orleans' firefighters' union says the city's furloughs have had an impact on service. The city has required nearly all of its public employees to take at least six unpaid days off before the end of the year in order to offset COVID-19-related budget issues. (Photo/New Orleans Fire Fighters Association Facebook)

But firefighters say it comes at the cost of public safety and the safety of firefighters.

The firefighters’ union said Sunday the impacts of the furloughs are already being felt. Three trucks were out of service on Sunday because firefighters had to be moved around to fill shifts elsewhere.

While only about 13 people at the department were furloughed on Sunday, prior staffing issues left the NOFD with only about 110 on duty out of about 153 the union considers necessary to be fully staffed, said Aaron Mischler, the union president.

“That’s going to be (the same for) every day for the rest of the year,” Mischler said. “It’s going to get worse, guys are going to be working a lot harder so injuries are going to go up, fires are going to get bigger and emergency calls are going to get worse.”

The lack of staffing could have implications for the department’s response times and ability to properly respond to emergencies, he said.

While no firehouses went unstaffed on Sunday, stations on Jefferson Davis Parkway, St. Peter and Basin streets and Elysian Fields Avenue were down to single trucks, he said. Because each of those trucks only has three firefighters on it and rules require at least four people at a scene before firefighters are allowed inside a burning building, that could mean delays in properly responding to serious fires, Mischler said.

By way of illustration, Mischler noted that the trucks in the Elysian Fields firehouse were called out to a fire on the porch of a house on Frenchman Street just before the shift change on Sunday. Because both trucks were able to respond in about four minutes, they were able to keep the blaze from spreading to the home, he said.

But if the fire had been called in 10 minutes later, only one of those trucks could have been sent out and the department would have had to rely on a second truck from a station all the way on Poland Avenue, which could have taken 12 to 15 minutes to arrive, he said. In that time, the situation could have gotten far worse, he said.

Mischler predicted the lower staffing would mean more injuries for firefighters, which would further reduce the departments’ staffing levels. In addition, it means shifting firefighters around to neighborhoods and trucks they may be less familiar with.

“Everyone on the job has a knowledge of the streets of the city, we know where we live, we know the makeup of the streets and where they are generally. It does stand to reason that the people who work those neighborhoods regularly know where the potholes are, know where the fire hydrants are,” he said. “It’s the little things that can make a difference and cut precious seconds off a call.”

The city has said the cuts are necessary to offset COVID-19 spending and plummeting revenues from sales tax. The $6 million in savings hardly makes up for the $41 million in coronavirus-related expenses the city has not been reimbursed for.

The city has incurred $92 million in pandemic expenses. But it has only received reimbursement for $52 million from the federal government, an amount divvyed out by the state based on a formula accounting for population and coronavirus cases. The city hoped to receive more money, but negotiations over aid to local governments were called off by President Trump earlier this week.

A spokesperson for Mayor LaToya Cantrell could not be reached for comment Sunday.

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©2020 The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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