HFD Union files lawsuit against City of Houston, HFD chief

By Ryan Korsgard - Reporter, Jill Courtney

HOUSTON - The Houston Professional Firefighters Association has filed a lawsuit against the City of Houston and the Houston Fire Department chief in an attempt to get all emergency vehicles back in service.

Bryan Sky-Eagle, president of the Houston Professional Firefighters Association, made the announcement Tuesday morning at a press conference. The union says cutbacks to emergency service are not the way to fix the department's $8.5 million deficit.

The union filed the temporary restraining order Tuesday with the district civil court. A judge denied the temporary restraining order during a court hearing Tuesday afternoon.

Houston's firefighters union says rolling brownouts, or the parking of six ambulances and one medic unit, puts the city at risk. The union also highlighted three cases in just the last three days where ambulances were parked and the union says that caused delays for help.

That included the electrocution deaths of two construction workers Monday night. The union said there was an 11-minute wait for an ambulance since the closest ambulance a mile and a half away at Station 80 was shut down.

Sky-Eagle said, "I cannot tell you that the brownout was the absolute cause of the deaths. No one has empirical data to put those two together. But it surely doesn't help things knowing that the equipment and the personnel is there; just unable to respond."

On Saturday, Houston Fire Chief Terry Garrison ordered six ambulances and one medic unit shut down -- until further notice -- in order to save about $1.5 million in overtime overruns. The crews from those ambulances will be split up to work at other stations.

The HFD union says the cuts have already put people in danger, and they want to stop further cuts from being made that would put more people's lives in jeopardy.  The department said the response of basic life-saving help increased by only 13 seconds since seven EMS units were removed from service.

The city is trying to save money after overtime overruns and what the union says is an "understaffed department."

The union says that it's putting lives at risk.

"This is the first step that we're taking in a series of steps to end the rolling brownouts. We don't know how the judge will rule on this, but we're doing everything we can to protect the lives of the citizens and the firefighters," said Sky-Eagle. "Fire Chief Garrison is named in this restraining order, but by no means is this a personal attack on him. He has been boxed into a corner where I don't think he has any options. He's doing simply the best that they can for what he has to work with."

Mayor Annise Parker released the following statement Tuesday after the judge denied the union's temporary restraining order:

"The union is sorely mistaken in this instance. There is no intention of compromising public safety. So far, only seven transport units have been removed from service. These ambulances are not first responders and are the same units that were taken out of service in 2010 at the height of the budgetary issues the city faced due to the recession. These units were returned to service with budget increases allotted to the fire department last July. The union raised no concerns in 2010.  If we had the ability to make this move then, we have the ability to do it now."

Union leaders believe the department will next cut big fire trucks, more EMS units and fire supervisors. The chief would not confirm what will be cut when.

Chief Terry Garrison said, "This rose to a level that I can't speak to budget cuts at this time. We're going to meet in negotiations this afternoon and I can't talk about that. Hopefully we'll reach some relief there or some agreement."

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