Firefighters with the City of Robstown's Fire Department have formed a union and as the first order of business, they are looking to obtain more manpower for what they claim are currently undermanned shifts.
Allen Wilkinson, a 12-year veteran of the department and president of the Robstown Professional Fire Fighters Association, said the union was formed in January, after receiving its designation from the International Association of Fire Fighters as Union No. 4715. The goal is simple, he said - to help the department grow in order to meet the needs of a city on the rise.
"Everything that we do is basically against what you're taught in school because we don't have the manpower to follow through with what normal operating procedure will be," Wilkinson said.
He cited a safety procedure that is commonly referred to as a "two in, two out" rule, meaning when two firefighters go into a burning building, two more should be standing by in case a rescue is needed. Right now, he said, the department is operating with three shifts daily with only three certified firefighters on duty, one of which only has two because a firefighter has been out due to medical reasons.
For a city with a population of nearly 13,000 residents, with homes that are made predominantly of wood in tightly grouped neighborhoods, those numbers are troubling, Wilkinson said. The department also has duties that include the department having to respond to rural emergencies for Nueces County, he added.
"Not only do we put ourselves in jeopardy by going in and doing a search and rescue or doing an interior fire attack, but we don't have anyone left to help us out if something were to go wrong," Wilkinson said. "We're not able to give the public the service of search and rescue they deserve in that situation."
Fire Chief Richard Gonzalez acknowledged Monday that the department currently has undermanned shifts in terns of certified personnel, and also said he understood the concerns the union has regarding the situation. But, he added, the department currently has 18 to 20 volunteer firefighters to go along with the nine certified and paid full-time professionals.
Despite the fact that they are volunteers, Gonzalez said those individuals attend monthly training and meetings in order to ensure theirs and the other firefighters' safety.
"We don't allow them to respond without having some form of training," Gonzalez said. "But I understand what (the union) wants and I'm behind them 100 percent. It is a risky business and the more firemen you have, the better you can respond (to emergencies)."
But Wilkinson said he is hoping the department stops relying so much on volunteers and hires more certified personnel, who would have more experience and training to deal with emergency fire situations. A move like that would allow the department, he added, to be seen in a much more professional light.
"We feel like our department is run like a volunteer department and we're a paid department," Wilkinson said. "We're just looking for us to become more professional and get the respect that we deserve. But to get that respect, we also have to have something to work with and that comes in with your manpower and equipment, and we're lacking on both ends."
Gonzalez said he expects to start working on the department's budget proposal to the city sometime within the next week and intends to include a request for additional manpower, though he is cautious about whether the city can afford to pick up the extra cost.
"I'll definitely include more help," the fire chief said. "We wish we could hire these three guys right away, but with a community our size, hiring any number of firemen would put a little dent into our budget."
City secretary Paula Wakefield said Friday that the city has applied for a grant with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security that would help to offset the cost of the three firefighters' salaries during the first three years. That would give the city time to prepare to eventually take over paying the salaries itself, she added.
She estimated the cost for new firefighter personnel to be about $90,000 each, including salaries and paid benefits.
But for Wilkinson and the other members of the union, no cost is too high to ensure the safety of those on the front line and the residents they protect. He reiterated the union's goal of not looking for higher salaries, but rather more manpower and, eventually, better equipment.
"It really is a safety issue," he said. "We're in need of something and we feel the taxpayers aren't getting what they deserve. We want to see this become reality."