The Houston Chronicle reported yesterday that the first long-dreaded brownouts of the Houston Fire Department’s service have begun. As the astute may recall, an agreement was ostensibly reached some three weeks ago that averted such an issue, which was first caused by too many unannounced absences among the firefighters. As I have explained ad nauseum in the past, this is largely thanks to an overgenerous union contract that allows most firefighters to receive paid leave without much of an eye or upper bound as to how many people are taking off. Accordingly, especially during major holidays, the department was swamped by ballooning payroll expenses, thus putting them over budget.
The original solution to this issue was simply pulling fire trucks out of commission until the end of the fiscal year, which is the halfway point of the year. However, after much posturing, Mayor Parker and the Firefighter’s Union came to an agreement wherein the firefighters would receive a meager pay hike in exchange for constricting many of the conventions used to take off time on paid leave. The other major provision was that, provided there were no more than 36 unannounced absences in a particular day, brownouts would not occur. However, on Friday, 42 unannounced absences occurred.
It is Saturday now, so it goes without saying that nothing cataclysmic happened as a result of idling these trucks on Friday. However, the precedent is one that simply should not be happening in the first place. It is dangerous and reckless to use the public safety of the City as pawns in this political game of chess. Pardon the painful pun, but the City is literally playing with fire.
However, my disgust should absolutely not be directed solely toward the City. The firefighters, specifically their union, were reckless themselves in not lobbying harder against more than 36 absences. The union could have –should have– offered some other incentive for firefighters to not take off once they realized a critical mass was thinking of skipping work.
The City wants to have a solvent budget, I get that, and it is their main prerogative to do so. The firefighters, on the other hand, want the best salary and benefits for them and their family. Again, that is perfectly understandable. But if you imagine the priorities as a Venn diagram, the overlap between the two is serving constituents and protecting the public. When these brownouts occur, everyone is let down. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen again.