While nearly all Metro departments have struggled to cut their budgets because of slumping sales-tax revenue, the Fire Department has somehow managed to pass out impressive new job titles to its men in red. This past August in the waning days of Mayor Bredesen’s administration, the Fire Department pushed through nearly 40 promotions, nine of which became effective less than one week before Mayor Purcell took his oath of office.
“That’s a heavy slate of promotions at one time,” says Bill Phillips, Purcell’s chief of staff. “There’s no doubt we would have liked to have had the opportunity to think about it before it was done, but it didn’t work out that way.”
Fire Chief Buck Dozier, who once served as an aide to Bredesen, said there was never any attempt to sneak in the promotions before the arrival of Purcell. He says, “This has been an ongoing thing for three-and-a-half years.”
But Councilman at-large Chris Ferrell, who serves as vice chair of the Council’s Budget and Finance Committee, calls the timing of the Fire Department’s promotions “rather odd.” He adds, “This was done in the last days of the old administration when the potential problems it will create affect the new.”
Those potential problems may include fewer rank-and-file firefighters. Philips notes that a decrease in the number of emergency medical technicians will help pay for the promotions. “I really don’t know if I was the fire chief if I would do the same thing,” he says.
But Dozier says that while there may end up being fewer EMTs as well as paramedics in the wake of the recent promotions, there will still be the same number of ambulances on the street. He adds that planned efficiency improvements within the department might end up reducing the department’s need for both EMTs and paramedics anyway.
Altogether, the Fire Department’s promotion inventory includes 15 new district chiefs, eight fire engineers, 15 fire captains, and two fire assistant chiefs. According to Dozier, while the newly upgraded employees will help staff undermanned shifts, they won’t add to the department’s $67 million budget. Many of the newly promoted employees, he notes, were simply filling vacant positions that were already covered in the budget. According to Dozier, even before the promotions were approved, Fire Department employees were frequently taking on the responsibilities of the vacant positions and were already being paid the higher rate.
In part because of all the recent promotions, however, the Fire Department now has 40 vacant firefighting positions, none of which are likely to be filled in the near future. In order to decrease its budget by 5 percent, the Fire Department has a hiring freeze in place. Making matters worse, the chief himself expects that due to attrition, there will be 20 additional vacancies by the end of the year.
So naturally, some are wondering if the Fire Department now has, in effect, too many chiefs and not enough, well, firefighters.
“We need to look at how and why these promotions took place,” says Council member Melvin Black, who serves on the Public Safety Committee. When told that these promotions won’t swell the department’s budget, Black was decidedly skeptical. “I do think we need to make sure that is the truth and all the promotions were above board.”
Councilman Earl Campbell, himself a former firefighter and chair of the Council’s Public Safety Commission, says the focus should not be on the promotions but on the number of firefighters the department will soon need.
“They have a lot of vacant positions and if we don’t fill them the Fire Department is going to be in a bind.” Hopefully all those new chiefs can show the way.
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