City calls for new hires after Houston Fire Department loses more than 200 firefighters

By Joel Eisenbaum - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Channel 2 Investigates dug into more drama involving the Houston Fire Department. The department has an employee retention problem, and more than 200 firefighters have left in the past few years.

The problem has become so bad, the city of Houston is making a complete reversal by calling for new HFD hires.

Q: Why is this happening?

A: The president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association cites low pay, dwindling benefits and low morale as key reasons for the departures.

Q: Can't we just hire new firefighters?

A: The city is trying to do that right now. The Houston Fire Department is hiring up to 160 new firefighters after initially budgeting zero hires in Fiscal Year 2020. Training civilians to become firefighters is both costly and time-consuming. 

By the numbers: 

- The initial outlay for the new hires will be in the neighborhood of $4.8 million. Other cities in Texas both big and small offer more competitive wages. 

- Thirty-three percent of new cadets have left the department.

- Twenty-seven of the 81 most recent HFD cadets have already departed. 

Where are they now?

The most popular destination appears to be the Austin Fire Department. Five cadets trained with Houston tax dollars now work in Austin. 

HFD response "By the numbers": 

Editor's Note: The Houston Fire Department did not break down the number of voluntary resignations but did respond late Friday afternoon with a different set of statistics. The figure regarding 11 cadets separating from HFD is post-graduation.)

From HFD:

"Non-Retirement" separation actions include medical separations, active member death, voluntary resignations, resignations in lieu of indefinite suspensions, and indefinite suspensions.

"From 2011-2014, the TOTAL 'Non-Retirement' separation actions by Calendar Year (January 2011 – December 2014) and Fiscal Year (July 2010 – June 2014):

197 – Calendar Year
166 – Fiscal Year

"From 2015-2017, the TOTAL 'Non-Retirement' separation actions by Calendar Year (January 2015 – December 2017) and Fiscal Year (July 2014 – June 2017):

298 – Calendar Year
288 – Fiscal Year

"The total department attrition (including service retirements and all other separation actions) for Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019:

199 – Fiscal Year 2018
148 – Fiscal Year 2019

"For Fiscal Year 2020, the department has budgeted for total attrition of 155.

"In 2018, 80 cadets graduated from the training academy. Of those 80 cadets, 11 have separated from the department.

"For Fiscal Year 2020, HFD has received approval to hold 2 Certified Firefighter/EMT classes of 45 cadets each and 1 Non-certified class of 70 cadets.

"The cadet/trainee base salary cost of a certified class of 45 cadets is $365K.

"The cadet/trainee base salary cost of a non-certified class of 70 cadets is $1.4M.

"A Civil Service Firefighter Trainee Entrance Examination was announced by the Fire Fighters' & Police Officers' Civil Service Commission on Aug. 27, 2019. 

"The department has received almost 400 applications and continues to receive applications. The current Classified Employee headcount is 3,901."

Mayor's statement

On Monday, we received the following response from the Mayor's press secretary on behalf of Chief Peña:

"Mayor Turner's main concern is public safety. My request to hire firefighters to replace for attrition was approved after the start of the fiscal year, and was made possible by a financial reprioritization. We expect to hire 160 cadets this fiscal year.  This is great news for our city and our community.  We want residents and businesses to feel safe and stay encouraged about Houston's future."

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