Las Vegas Sun

December 3, 2016

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City officials, union at odds over effects of cuts to North Las Vegas Fire Department

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Sam Morris

North Las Vegas city manager Timothy Hacker answers a question during a meeting with the Las Vegas Sun editorial board Wednesday, June 27, 2012.

On July 1, the North Las Vegas Fire Department will face devastation and decimation. Or not.

It all depends on who is talking.

Sunday is the first day the city of North Las Vegas will impose its budget cuts on the fire department as part of the city's effort to close a budget gap surpassing $30 million. City Manager Tim Hacker considers it a retooling of the department; the moves, he said, will make the department more cost efficient, yet just as effective.

North Las Vegas Firefighters Association President Jeff Hurley thinks it will be catastrophic.

“I don’t see a best-case scenario,” Hurley said. “I don’t see a positive out of this. The cuts are getting so large. These cuts are getting down so low it’s not even safe for firefighters.”

While the impact is uncertain, the cuts are known. One of the biggest to the department, slashing the budget for most overtime pay, is designed to save $2.1 million. It's based on a recommendation from Fire Chief Al Gillespie, who could not be reached for comment.

Some of the department's response vehicles and even entire stations also would be subject to temporary closing if a daily staffing level of 36 or more firefighters can’t be maintained.

Hacker said the plans called for up to six vehicles to be taken out of commission first, beginning with the one with the lowest call volume. Then, Station 54 on Camino Al Norte, followed by Station 50 on Martin Luther King Boulevard, and, as a last resort, Station 56 near the Aliante Station resort would be subjected to temporary closing, depending on available staffing.

Hacker said the "brownout" station closures would only happen in a worst-case scenario. With 151 firefighting employees, or about 50 per shift, he said there should be a minimum of 40 at work on a given day after vacations and sick leaves are taken into account. Also, various employees are trained to handle multiple positions, which provides some staffing flexibility to avoid overtime.

“When you look at it, over 15 individuals, or nearly a quarter of a daily workforce, would not show up" for the closures to be triggered, Hacker said. "We haven’t experienced that.”

Hurley, however, disagrees.

He likened the fire department to a ghost town. Hurley said the department lost 32 people last year, and the city has not hired new firefighters in four years. As a result, the department is short-staffed 10 or 11 employees each day from vacant positions. Add in vacation and sick days, and he believes the staff could run as low as 24 employees on a given day. In comparison, it takes a crew of 25 to battle a house fire, he said.

Those staffing levels would ensure stations and vehicles would be shut down for the day. If that happens, Hurley said even if another department is only a few minutes away, the results could be devastating in a fire.

“Fire doubles in size every minute,” Hurley said. “If it takes two or three minutes longer, imagine what that would do to a house. … No pun intended, but we’re playing with fire.”

Hurley said there was low morale among North Las Vegas firefighters.

“We’ve got more leaving. Every municipality is hiring firefighters,” Hurley said. “What’s going to happen in the next 60 days is devastating. It takes a good year to train firefighters, and we won’t be able to get (already-trained firefighters) to transfer because the city is so unstable.”

Yet what Hurley sees as inevitable, Hacker sees as an unlikely, exaggerated scenario.

Hacker said other municipalities are not as interested in pulling from the North Las Vegas Fire Department now that there won’t be any layoffs of firefighters. In addition, he said the city would begin to put together a list of firefighter candidates to fill positions if employees leave.

“We are at a level of service that we hope to improve upon,” Hacker said. “Folks that are out there fear mongering, I can’t even get into that mindset. I can’t understand the benefit to create that kind of fear in employees and citizens.”

Still, as the start of the budget cuts loom, both believe their versions of the future to be the right one. It could be disaster, it could be life as usual or a mixture of both.

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