A Fire Department study commissioned by the city of Tulsa calls into question the need to hire 65 new firefighters — a central component of the public safety sales tax approved by voters in April as part of Vision Tulsa.
The Fire Department is set to receive $70 million from the tax over the next 15 years, nearly 90 percent of which would be used to hire new firefighters, according to records provided by the city.
As first reported by the Tulsa World last week, a preliminary report by the Center for Public Safety Management, LLC, of Washington, D.C., recommends three firefighters to a truck rather than four. In the months leading up to the Vision Tulsa vote, city officials and the Vision Tulsa campaign promoted the need for more fighters as a way to improve public safety.
Fire Department officials argued that a fourth firefighter was needed on trucks in busy areas and on the perimeter of the city, where it often takes longer for support units to arrive. Having the extra firefighter on a truck, officials argued, would improve firefighters’ safety, help firefighters do their jobs once they arrive at the scene, and enable them to complete their work more quickly.
Fire Department officials said this week that 15 of the 65 new firefighters funded through Vision Tulsa would be assigned to the city’s new east Tulsa fire station once it is constructed. The remaining 50 firefighters would be hired to put a fourth man on a truck.
The cost to hire those 50 firefighters would be approximately $47.4 million, or about 68 percent of the $70 million allocation for the Fire Department, according to data provided by the city.
The city is not legally obligated to use revenue from the public safety tax to hire a specific number of firefighters. The city ordinance outlining how the Vision Tulsa funds would be spent lists several potential uses but makes no mention of hiring 65 firefighters.
The sales tax would pay for “additional firefighters, and equipment for said firefighters; new or additional firefighting and rescue equipment; and construction of fire stations and/or renovation of existing fire stations,” according to the ordinance.
Mayor Dewey Bartlett said Tuesday that he has not read the preliminary report but that he would not be in favor of hiring extra firefighters to put a fourth man on trucks if the final report does not recommend doing so.
“I think that would be very unwise in my view and irresponsible,” Bartlett said. “We would use only the people that are necessary.”
The mayor said he does not believe there is a need for a fourth firefighter on a truck, except for those fire stations along the perimeter of the city.
“The (fire) chief and I disagree about this,” Bartlett said.
The mayor said it is his understanding that often multiple fire trucks arrive at the scene of a fire at the same time, putting as many as nine firefighters on the scene when three trucks are sent, and 12 firefighters at the scene when four trucks are sent.
“So this whole idea about three to a truck is being, in my view, oversold as a safety issue,” Bartlett said.
City Councilor Karen Gilbert, the council’s strongest advocate for the public safety tax, said she would continue to advocate for putting four men on a truck.
“I am standing my ground because that is what we told the citizens of Tulsa throughout town hall meeting after town hall meeting after town hall meeting,” Gilbert said. “I am standing my ground not just for the safety of the citizens of Tulsa but for the safety of the firefighters.”
Gilbert said there was a time in the 1970s and 1980s when there were five firefighters to a truck. She also noted that city ordinance prohibits firefighters from going into a structure if there are only three firefighters at the scene, but that the regulation is often ignored by firefighters determined to do their jobs.
“They do it because that is their nature,” Gilbert said.
Another reason to have four firefighters to a truck is that the Fire Department is typically the first responder on life-and-death 911 calls, Gilbert said.
“If you back down to three to a truck, you are cutting the quality of life of citizens, and that is something we cannot do,” Gilbert said. “That is what the Vision program was all about — to add quality of life and public safety for the citizens.”
Bartlett said what the city won’t do is simply come up with ways to spend the millions of dollars of Vision funding that would have gone to hire more firefighters. The city will need money to build a planned east Tulsa fire station, Bartlett said, and that station will need to be outfitted with fire trucks and other equipment.
“There are also three (fire stations) that are very close together that I think one of those, maybe even two of those, might be deemed to be unnecessary at that location,” Bartlett said. “So we might close one down and move that, or maybe close both of them down and move that group of people to a whole new fire station where it’s needed more….This could be a good source of funding for that kind of activity.”
Fire Chief Ray Driskell declined to comment on the specifics of the preliminary study except to say that he wants to check on what data the Center for Public Safety Management used to come up with its recommendations.
“We are very open-minded at this point,” Driskell said.
The idea is to combine the findings of the study and the institutional knowledge of the firefighters “to see what is most appropriate for the needs of the citizens,” Driskell said.
The final version of the Fire Department study is expected to be completed this summer.