Las Vegas Sun

July 29, 2015

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J. Patrick Coolican:

Governance is so bad, firefighters won’t even live in North Las Vegas

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Steve Marcus

North Las Vegas resident Robert McGlothin, left, listens to North Las Vegas firefighter Gary Polk in a neighborhood near Aliante Parkway and I-215 Tuesday, July 10, 2012. The firefighters are trying to increase community attendance at the North Las Vegas Mayor’s community meeting on Wednesday, July 11.

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

Off-duty North Las Vegas firefighters walked precincts this week, telling residents to pressure the city to reverse cuts in emergency services, including the rotating closure of one or two of the city’s eight firehouses any given day.

The firefighters can’t rely on their own votes in upcoming elections. Very few of them live in North Las Vegas.

Of the 171 fire department employees, only 13, or 8 percent, live in North Las Vegas, according to the city.

They average nearly $140,000 in wages and benefits, according to the city, so I guess we can hardly blame them for choosing to live in the tonier areas of the valley rather than beaten down Northtown.

Still, it seems a bit presumptuous to be telling citizens of North Las Vegas, people who actually live there, how they should deal with the city’s $31.9 million deficit. (Yep, I fall in this category, too.)

Come to think of it, maybe North Las Vegas should require public employees to live there so workers have a bit more stake in its recovery.

The city of Las Vegas has no residency requirement, but Boston and Chicago public employees have to live within city limits, and New Jersey state workers must live in the Garden State.

Jeff Hurley, the president of the firefighters union, lives in Las Vegas. He told me that although most of his members don’t live in North Las Vegas, they work there and are concerned about patient safety. (The vast majority of  911 calls for fire department help — 83 percent — are for medical reasons.)

“We know fires double in size every 60 seconds. We know survivability decreases with every minute” in a severe medical emergency, he said.

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North Las Vegas Fire Capt. Jeff Hurley poses by a ladder truck at Fire Station 56 near Aliante Parkway and I-215 in North Las Vegas Tuesday, July 10, 2012. The station is not always open or open with reduced staff due to staffing problems, Hurley said. The station was open on Tuesday but without a rescue unit.

Previously, the city’s private ambulance company and fire crews would both respond to emergencies together, which reduced response times and is considered the industry gold standard.

The city’s current plan is to allow its private ambulance contractor to handle lower-level medical calls alone (more on that in my next column), lessening the need for fire crews.

I asked Hurley if he had an alternative to the city’s cost-cutting plans. He said other North Las Vegas employees, such as those represented by the Teamsters, weren’t being subjected to the same reductions that have caused firehouse brownouts.

The city counters that 125 employees, 60 of them Teamsters, have been laid off.

In the emergency resolution passed last month allowing the city to suspend public safety contracts, the city says firefighter compensation increased from $27.3 million in fiscal year 2007-08 to an estimated $32.7 million 2012-13.

Even so, the fire department has lost 32 people in the past year, or 15 percent — often to other departments — and replaced none of them, leaving the department the smallest per capita in Southern Nevada.

Because police and fire layoffs would threaten public safety even more, city officials say there was no choice but to suspend police and fire contracts to make necessary cuts.

Hurley noted that the firefighter union has made several rounds of concessions since the recession began, including no cost-of-living increase since 2009, and offered still more this year.

His assessment of the situation: “It’s a sinking ship.”

Hurley recently told the Review-Journal, “I wouldn’t want to live near a closed firehouse.”

Although most North Las Vegas firefighters aren’t likely to live near a closed firehouse given their out-of-town residency status, Hurley is correct that these service cutbacks are far from ideal. The rotating brownouts could force Clark County and Las Vegas emergency personnel to respond to North Las Vegas, creating shortages and increased response times all over the valley.

The fiasco in North Las Vegas, which is largely the result of the bipartisan hubris and myopia of last decade’s housing bubble, should teach us one thing: Bad governance carries consequences.

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