It’s a familiar story: Union versus employer. In this case, the union is the Mission Fire Fighters Association (MFFA) and the employer is the City of Mission. Due to their different perspectives, they see the “facts” differently.
To make things yet more interesting, the clash is between Mission Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas and his son-in-law, Mike Silva, president of the Fire Fighters Association.
The conflict flared up at the Monday, Jan. 23, Mission City Council meeting when Mayor Salinas became upset by posts on the MFFA Facebook page criticizing the city for inadequate staffing of the Fire Department.
He asked the council to table an agenda item that was to approve the purchase of a new fire truck at a cost of roughly $530,000. Adding to the conflict was some confusion about the union wanting a new ladder truck as well. It was later established that was not the case and the mayor said they would call a special meeting to re-post the item to approve the pumper truck purchase. That meeting has been set for Friday, Jan. 27, at 4:30 p.m.
Silva says the city is not providing full-time crews to man Ladder Truck No. 1 stationed at the Central Fire Station, causing that truck to not be able to respond to calls as required by department protocols.
Mayor Salinas and City Manager Martin Garza Jr., however, say that since the ladder truck only goes out on 30 calls per year, there is no need to have a four-man crew dedicated to man the truck 24/7. Instead, the practice is to use the same fire fighters and engineer for manning either the pumper engine or the ladder truck, both stationed at Central Fire Station.
The fire command staff decides which truck to take on a call. The decision is based on the nature of the call and which apparatus is better suited to do the job at that time. There is always a four-man crew stationed continuously to respond to fire alarms and other calls for assistance.
One of the MFFA Facebook posts reads, in part: “For approximately 8 years, we have been requesting fire fighters and we continue to receive the same answer, ‘NO, because there is no money in the budget.’ We search for grants and even with finding some we get denied to even apply for them. So tell me, how does a city continue to improve on city projects, yet cannot afford to build on the requests of department heads?”
Another MFFA Facebook post criticized the council’s decision to build a new event center, when the money could be spent on the needs of the Fire Department.
In a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon, Silva said staffing recommendations by the National Fire Protection Association call for a four-man engine company to be assigned to a ladder truck.
To fill all three shifts, this would require 12 additional fire fighters to fully staff the ladder truck. That would cost the city taxpayers about $770,000 per year according to the city manager. Silva admits the NFPA recommendation is just that – a recommendation – and is not mandated. He said he would be happy with nine additional fire fighters, which would cost $578,000 annually.
The mayor says he would rather use that money to build a new fire station that is needed in the Southwest quadrant of the city. He estimates the new station will cost the city $3.5 million.
“After it is finished then we can hire more fire fighters,” said the mayor. “They just need to give us a chance to build the fire station first.”
However, Garza said the city is making no promises to add more fire fighters, as he is considering several different options for Fire Department operations.
One option would be to close Station No. 2, the oldest city fire station and move those crews to the new station once it is completed. Each fire station covers an assigned area. Station No. 2 and Central Fire Station, since they are located so close together, presently cover almost identical areas, causing duplication.
Plans are already underway to construct the new station, which is to be built on three acres of land located at Schuerbach Rd. and Military Rd. The station will be a combination police and fire station similar to the Station No. 5 on Glasscock Rd. The city plans to have the new station completed in two years.
The city is experiencing rapid growth in that part of the city, like it did in the Sharyland Plantation area a few years ago when the city added Station No. 5, said Garza.
As illustrated by the Facebook post, the union has wanted more fire fighters for several years. Silva says the city has not added any fire fighter positions in nine years. But Garza says Mission has all the coverage it needs at the current staffing levels. He provided comparisons with neighboring cities similar in size to Mission, which show Edinburg has 48 fire fighters and Pharr has 62. Mission has 67. He explained the reason Edinburg is so low is they have volunteer fire fighters who make up the difference.
More importantly, the city manager looks to the fire chief for input on what is needed to adequately provide fire protection for the city, without costing the taxpayer more than is necessary. As an example, while four-man crews are optimum for operating a fire engine, Interim Fire Chief Gilbert Sanchez said three-man crews are adequate to get the job done. So the city has some four-man crews and some three-man crews and has operated this way for years.
The problem, said Silva, is when men are out due to vacation, illness or training. Then other fire fighters have to work overtime to fill in. The city spent about $569,000 in overtime costs according to Silva.
When asked if the city could save money by hiring more fire fighters to reduce overtime costs, Garza said they have looked into it and it doesn’t work out. It’s not as simple as it sounds, he said. With five fire stations and multiple shifts and job assignments and training levels, there are many factors to consider.
“Right now we have more fire stations, we have more personnel, and we have better pay than Pharr and Edinburg. I think that says a lot about our Fire Department,” said Salinas. “We’ve always been very supportive of the Fire Department; they do a great job for us.”
Comparisons of fire fighter pay show Mission pays more than any other city in the area, including McAllen. The base pay for a starting fire fighter, after probation, in Mission is $42,048; McAllen is $39,703, and Pharr is $37,662. Figures for Edinburg were not available at press time.
Salinas said it has been his goal to have a fire station built in every quadrant of the city, affording better fire protection and better response times. It has taken him 20 years to get there.
“We’re almost there. This is the last one,” he said, referring to the proposed fire station on the Southwest side.
In discussing the matter, the city manager and interim fire chief noted that the city is receiving fewer calls for fire suppression each year. This is due to better fire prevention education the department provides in the schools and other settings, fire safety, and code enforcement, Sanchez said.
Some 80 percent of the calls are medical calls requiring EMS response. The other 20 percent includes a mix of fire suppression, vehicle accidents and other calls. A fire department report for residential structure fire incidents reported from Jan. 1 – Dec. 31, 2016 shows a total of 33 structure fires. Of those, 19 were classified as building fires, nine as cooking fire confined to container, four fires in structures other than building and one was a fire in a mobile home.