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City fire department in a crisis
By Bruce Eggler Staff writer

Nearly a year after Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans Fire Department is in bad shape and getting worse, the City Council was told Thursday.

The department has “a rapidly deteriorating morale problem” and post-Katrina personnel losses are undermining its ability to do its job, District Chief Tim McConnell said.

“I am here in a crisis mode,” Fire Fighters Association Local 632 President Nick Felton told the council, pointing to what he said was firefighters’ anger over the city’s failure to include most of them in recently announced raises for police officers.

“I don’t know how much longer I can hold the men and women together,” Felton said, adding that “the stress level is past critical mass” and that pay is so low that fast-food chains are offering new workers higher per-hour wages than the Fire Department. “Your Fire Department is whittling away to nothing,” he said.

Superintendent Charles Parent said that before Katrina, the department had 770 employees, 55 fewer than authorized. Because of resignations and retirements, it now has 695 employees, including 651 actual firefighters, but about 100 are out on sick leave on a typical day, meaning “manpower is down between 30 and 60 members on a daily basis,” Parent said.

As a result, with the department’s budget cut by $12 million and no money available for overtime, from three to eight of the department’s 31 engine companies are out of service on a typical day because of lack of manpower, he said.

Meanwhile, as many as five fire trucks are inoperable each day because of mechanical problems, many of them caused by operating in salt water while most of the city was flooded after the storm, Parent said.

To compensate for the loss of personnel, the number of firefighters per engine has been reduced from four to three. With two firefighters needed to direct water at a fire, that means the first company to arrive on the scene has only one person to go into a burning building to try to rescue trapped people, although normal procedure is never to go into such buildings alone, McConnell said.

In that situation, he said, firefighters must either violate procedure and go in alone; leave only one person at the engine, reducing its ability to pour water on the blaze; or ignore the pleas of bystanders to rescue possibly trapped friends or family members.

Because of the short-handed engines and other factors, more companies are being sent to many fires this year. For the first seven months of the year, Parent said, the number of multiple-alarm fires in the city increased by 145 percent, from 38 in 2005 to 93 this year. Three-alarm fires have gone from three to 17, and five-alarm fires from none to seven.

As he spoke, he said, a four-alarm fire was under way in Mid-City.

Chief Norman Woodridge, the Fire Department’s director of public affairs, said the department normally sends two units and at least seven firefighters for a one-alarm fire; four units and 23 firefighters for a two-alarm; and seven units and at least 33 firefighters for a three-alarm. After that, two more units and at least six firefighters are added for every additional alarm.

Since Katrina, extra firefighters are being sent out for all fires in the Lower 9th Ward and eastern New Orleans, Woodridge said. Water-dropping helicopters also are placed on stand-by for all fires in those areas.

During a five-alarm fire that draws 100 firefighters, Felton and McConnell said, only 30 personnel are left to protect the rest of the city.

During a five-alarm blaze Saturday that injured four firefighters in the 300 block of Baronne Street, McConnell said, the first man to fall through a hole on the second floor radioed a warning to others, but because of a shortage of radios and batteries, some of his colleagues did not hear him and two more fell through the floor.

Although the news media ignored it, Parent alleged, “not one firefighter left his post during the storm,” even though 22 of the department’s 33 firehouses were flooded and damaged. Starting a week after Katrina, he said, fire departments in New York, Illinois and Maryland responded to a call for help, sending 10 ladder trucks, 28 engines and more than 900 firefighters to assist the local department.

Eighty percent of firefighters lost their homes, Parent said, and many of their families remain displaced. Of the 31 remaining engine houses, just 15 are in their pre-Katrina buildings; the rest are operating from trailers.

A Centers for Disease Control report found that 89 of 133 firefighters surveyed showed signs of depression and 110 of 492showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress, Parent said.

The low pay the department offers also is “hampering recruitment and retention offers,” he said.

Felton, who has appeared before the council many times to argue for higher pay for his members, presented figures Thursday showing that a New Orleans firefighter’s “basic pay for one year of service” amounts to $21,130, or $8.24 an hour, at a time when he said fast-food chains such as Burger King, Wendy’s and McDonald’s are offering $10 an hour.

Felton said comparable salaries in other cities include more than $32,000 in Houston and Memphis, Tenn.; more than $27,000 in Baton Rouge; more than $24,000 in Shreveport; and nearly $34,000 in Hammond.

In Jefferson Parish, firefighter recruits are paid 32 percent more a year than in New Orleans, and they earn from 10 percent to 46 percent more at each level as they advance in rank, figures presented by Felton showed.

A survey of 40 major fire departments nationwide by the International Association of Fire Fighters found that first-year firefighters averaged $41,960, or $18.05 an hour, more than twice the figures for New Orleans.

As they have many times in the past, council members expressed sympathy for the firefighters’ plight and said they would like to help, but made no promises. No one representing Mayor Ray Nagin’s administration was on hand to hear the discussion.

Nagin last month announced plans to raise all police salaries by 10 percent and to boost the annual starting pay for rookie firefighters by $5,300 as a way to spur recruitment, but Felton said at the time that the raise would do nothing for firefighters already on the job. In fact, he said, under Nagin’s proposal, new recruits would be earning more than some firefighters with two or more years’ experience.

“This is absolutely preposterous. Is this doing anything for retention?” Felton asked then. “I’d say no.”

He said Thursday that firefighters are furious that for the third time in recent years, they have been omitted from raises offered to other city workers. “It is wrong. It is inequitable. It is unacceptable,” he said.

Explaining why not all firefighters would get a raise, Nagin noted that firefighters, unlike other municipal workers, get a state-mandated 2 percent annual pay increase starting in their third year on the job. Nagin also cited the so-called “longevity” raises as his reason for leaving firefighters out of previous citywide pay increases.

In addition, the city is under court orders to pay as much as $150 million to about 1,000 current and retired firefighters or their heirs to cover longevity raises the city failed to pay for many years. Even before Katrina, officials could not say where the cash-strapped city would get that money.

Staff writer Walt Philbin contributed to this report. (Bruce Eggler can be reached at or (504) 826-3320.)