Will civil service protections for Frisco firefighters improve safety – or cost too much?

The Frisco Firefighters Association wants voters to approve civil service and collective bargaining. But Frisco city leadership says the propositions aren’t necessary.

By Caroline Love, KERA NewsApril 9, 2024 11:25 am, ,

From KERA News:

The firefighters at Frisco Fire Station Seven respond to a lot of calls for help. There’s a nearby retirement community and busy road that has many car accidents.

Five firefighters are on duty at this station each shift. But there aren’t always that many at or close to the station. Sometimes, there might be fewer because some are taking a patient to the hospital — and the closest hospital, Medical City Frisco, is a ten-minute drive. Or, they might be helping firefighters at another station handle an emergency.

Matt Sapp, the president of the Frisco Firefighters Association, said the Frisco Fire Department is understaffed. He said that’s a problem because it doesn’t meet a National Fire Protection Agency standard that requires a minimum of four firefighters on a fire engine at a time. The standard ensures that each firefighter has backup on scene at a structure fire in case the firefighter needs to be rescued or has trouble breathing.

Sandy McGhee, the District 11 vice president for the International Association of Firefighters, said understaffing puts firefighters at risk.

“Firefighters are likely to not wait on somebody before they go in to try to make a rescue or do the job that is before them,” he said.

Sapp said staffing is a chronic problem in Frisco that’s impacting response times. The National Fire Protection Agency standard response time is eight minutes. Sapp said some districts in Frisco have response times as high as 11 minutes.

Sapp said the citizens deserve to know the association’s concerns about staffing and response times.

“We have a duty to kind of ring the bell when we have a safety concern,” he said.

Matt Sapp, Frisco Firefighter Association president, talks about the public safety propositions on the ballot in May in front of the Frisco Station 7.
Yfat Yossifor / KERA

Safety propositions

The association’s concerns about staffing have put it at odds with Frisco’s council members and the city manager. While firefighters raise concerns about staffing and safety issues, city officials argue that their complaints are overblown — and that their proposed solutions are too costly.

The association successfully petitioned to get two public safety propositions on the ballot this May. The association’s leadership said the propositions will give the organization the power to negotiate for more staff and remove political influence from the fire department.

One proposition would adopt a civil service system for the Fire Department. The other would allow for collective bargaining.

Civil service is a system that was created under a 1947 Texas law that was designed to provide government employees more due process and protection from political influence. If voters approve it, the new system would only apply to the Frisco Fire Department. It would take a separate petition and another vote to apply civil service to the Frisco Police Department.

Collective bargaining gives a representative from an employee union like the Frisco Firefighters Association the power to bargain on their behalf with their employer on wages, labor disputes and working conditions. State law doesn’t allow public sector employees to strike.

McGhee said 34 out of the 230 firefighter associations in Texas that the International Firefighters Association represents have successfully adopted a civil service system. He said 29 firefighter associations in Texas have collective bargaining rights.

He said civil service and collective bargaining aren’t as common in Texas because it requires an election to adopt them.

“Politics is hard to do,” he said.

But McGhee said the benefits of civil service and collective bargaining for firefighters is worth pursuing despite the challenge.

Pursuing equity

Firefighters who talked with KERA said the Frisco Fire Department has a cronyism problem.

Sapp said adopting a civil service system would ensure that promotions are based on merit, not on who the fire chief and city leadership like best. Under civil service, firefighters have to have at least two years of service in their current position and score well on a civil service test to get promoted under civil service.

Sapp said using tests for makes the promotional process more transparent and less biased.

“You do good on the assessment and you’re number one, then you’re going to be at the top of that list,” he said. “The fire chief can’t come in and go, well, I’m going to give this guy five points in this interview and this guy two, because I like this guy better.”

But Bill Woodard said a test isn’t enough to determine if an employee is a good fit for a promotion. Woodard is a member of the Safety First Frisco PAC that opposes adopting civil service and collective bargaining. He’s also a Frisco city council member.

“You could have somebody that that scores high on a test but is a poor leader or a lazy worker that would get promoted first,” Woodard said. “That doesn’t lead to positive morale in an organization.”

Some Frisco firefighters say they’re frustrated with the current system, calling it a “good old boy network.”

One firefighter said the city has changed policies for promotions on a whim to prevent certain people from being promoted. The firefighter said those who do get promoted become a mouthpiece for the city and the fire chief, something the firefighter said leads to distrust amongst firefighters.

“It’s not a brotherhood like you would think of a lot of other departments, just because everybody’s watching their back,” he said. “You don’t know who to trust.”

KERA isn’t naming the firefighter because the firefighter is concerned the city will retaliate against him for criticizing city leadership and Fire Department policies.

The firefighter said there are officers who want to speak up during leadership meetings, but they’re afraid of backlash. He said civil service would protect firefighters who speak up from retaliation. Under a civil service system, employees who are fired or disciplined can appeal to a civil service commission. The members of the commission are civilians that are appointed by the city’s chief executive.

Woodard said a civil service commission leads to less accountability. He said the commission is bound by strict rules that can be used to protect bad actors and poor performers from being fired. Brian Cox, a Dallas paramedic who kicked and punched an unhoused man in 2019, was reinstated after a civil service hearing in September 2023 according to a Dallas Morning News report. Cox was demoted and didn’t receive backpay.

“Those are not the kinds of employees that I want working, as a resident…in my city,” Woodard said.

Sapp said a civil service commission would’ve made a difference for former Assistant Fire Chief Cameron Kraemer. The city fired Kraemer while he was on leave getting treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Kraemer won his workers compensation case that he filed against the city of Frisco with the Texas Department of Insurance in October. The administrative law judge ordered the city of Frisco to pay Kraemer benefits and accrued unpaid income with interest in a lump sum.

Sapp said Kraemer also has a medical disability discrimination case before the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. He said the cost of the legal disputes could’ve been avoided with a civil service commission.

“It’s going to cost taxpayers money,” Sapp said. “We could have just taken this to a third party, and he’d have been able to get the proper amount of time to recover and come back to work.”

Standard of safety

Frisco city leadership and the Frisco Firefighters Association repeatedly have clashed over staffing at the fire department.

Wes Pierson, the Frisco city manager, said it would cost the city $7.2 million to meet the staffing level the firefighter association is asking for. He also said the Fire Department meets the National Fire Protection Agency’s response time requirements.

“There’s some times that we miss that a little bit, but on average, we’re pretty effective in most cases in meeting those response times,” he said.

Pierson said the Frisco Fire Department is already meeting high standards. The department received an accreditation from the Commission on Fire Accreditation International is 2018 had it renewed in August 2023. He said the department also has the best rating from the Insurance Services Office, which rates fire departments based on things like emergency communications and water supply.

The Frisco Fire Department was one of six departments that theU.S. Fire Administrationselected to participate in a national rollout of a new fire information and analytics platform. Woodard said that demonstrates the Frisco Fire Department is operating at a high level.

“You don’t get that to ask to be the first to do anything at a national level, unless you’re the best of the best, and we’ve done all that without the need for civil service and without the need for collective bargaining,” he said.

The city of Frisco does have plans to address the longer response times in certain districts. Pierson said Frisco is adding two more fire stations. Fire Station 10, which is under construction, is set to open in spring 2025. Fire Station 11 is being designed and won’t be constructed for a couple more years.

One of the firefighters who spoke with KERA that the new stations won’t fix the Fire Department’s staffing problems. He said Station 10’s district, which will be located on the Northwest corner of Frisco, already receives service from Prosper’s fire department.

“It’s just going to help with providing the actual correct level of services to the citizens of Frisco instead of it using the town of Prosper,” he said.

Pierson said the city’s priority is hiring staff for the new stations, not adding additional firefighters to engines. He said Frisco meets the four firefighters to an engine staffing standard by sending another engine to a scene if needed.

Sapp said sending another truck doesn’t meet the National Fire Protection Agency’s staffing standard.

“Do they meet the number of personnel showing up on scene if they’re sending half the city over here? Of course,” Sapp said. “But do you want half the city over here when they have other districts to cover because you’re not staffed appropriately? That’s really the question the citizens need to be worried about.”

Firefighter Association officials say collective bargaining would allow the group to have a seat at the negotiating table with the city for more staff.

City officials counter that firefighters already have a seat at many tables. A Frisco city website lists several committees where it says firefighters have a role in shaping policy. According to the city, more than 200 Frisco firefighters sit on 16 committees.

Two firefighters who talked with KERA suggested that having a firefighter on committees is just for show.

“It’s a lot of talking, but not a lot of actual process and decision making,” one said.

Woodard said all city employees — not just firefighters — have an open invitation to meet with city leadership about any concerns they have. He also said collective bargaining hurts the city’s relationship with its firefighters.

“It’s not collaborative,” Woodard said. “It’s adversarial. It’s one group of people coming in and making demands.”

Woodard said collective bargaining could lead to expensive legal battles like what happened in Houston. The Houston firefighters recently voted to approve a $650 million settlement after eight years of legal challenges. The settlement still has to be approved by a judge and the Houston City Council.

Sapp said pursuing collective bargaining and civil service was a last resort the association chose to pursue after the group reached an impasse with city leadership.

“We’re willing to give things up to get staff, but they don’t know we want to give stuff up because they can’t communicate with us,” Sapp said.

He said it will be up to the voters to decide how the balance of power will shift in Frisco — and what they need to keep them safe.

Early voting in Frisco starts April 22 and goes until April 30. Election Day is May 4.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and KERAnews.org. Thanks for donating today.