In late 2013, Steve Dean left Mobile city government after Sandy Stimpson became mayor. Three and a half years later, the 500-member Fire-Rescue Department still remains without a chief.
Think of it this way: The last time that Mobile had a permanent fire chief, the memorable "Kick 6" Iron Bowl was still a month away from kicking off.
James Barber, the newly minted public safety director, wants to change that. On Tuesday, he said that a new chief is a "very high priority" and acknowledged that a process is under way to vet 13 upper-level fire personnel who could be prospects to fill the job.
Screenings are being conducted, and each applicant has been told to submit a strategic plan for the department by week’s end. Next, said Barber, a consultant will perform "leadership testing" to "identify the right people with the right skills and skill sets and vision to lead the department."
"We want to be very careful we make the right selection," said Barber, declining to provide a timetable on when a choice will come before the City Council for a vote.
‘It’s a crisis’
The timing is important. Firefighters who spoke Tuesday during a council Public Safety Committee meeting described a lack of communication from the Stimpson administration and the present leadership within the Fire Department.
Most important, they cited a safety concerns following a reduction in manpower assigned to fire trucks.
Fire-Rescue Capt. Jimmy Connick said that, on a daily basis, the department is "15 to 20 firefighters" short of covering the city to the level that it did in 2013.
He said that it’s not uncommon for a fire truck to be manned by only three people – a fire captain, a driver and a firefighter. Typically, a truck is supposed to carry four people, two of whom are firefighters.
"It takes two companies to do what one company used to do in 2013, and it’s all about saving money," said Connick who urged the council to dip into reserves to fully staff the Fire Department. "It’s budget time now, and we need attention. It’s turning into a crisis."
Barber, though, questioned the urgency of dipping into the city reserves. He said the Fire Department once was operating $1.3 million in the red. "But because of some of the changes done by fire staff, that gap has narrowed down to $400,000," he said.
It’s too early, he said, to know whether the council will need to amend the budget to pay department operating costs through the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. "We have narrowed the deficit down so we don’t have to go in for an amendment at this point," Barber said.
Barber said the department needs to reconsider how it allocates its resources. Barber said there is room for more efficiency.
But a key building block, he said, is establishing a "core leadership team" that will field a corps of firefighters who are "properly equipped" and "properly compensated."
Solving a problem
Talks about getting a permanent fire chief quieted down in 2014 after Stimpson rescinded his recommendation that Deputy Chief Paul "Randy" Smith take charge. Smith had sued the city in a reverse-discrimination case, and his nomination met council resistance.
Assistant Chief Billy Pappas has since served as the acting chief, but his name has never surfaced as permanent replacement. Pappas, who wasn’t at Tuesday’s meeting, is currently on approved personal leave for two weeks.
According to department spokesman Steve Huffman, the deputy chiefs take turns each week filling in for Pappas. This week, Deputy Chief Ken Keller is the acting chief.
Barber confirmed that Pappas was not being considered for the permanent job.
Barber said there’s a list of reasons as to why Mobile has been without a permanent fire chief for so long. Among them: competing interests over the position, fragmentation within the Fire Department and procedural questions about the council’s role in the process.
Walton, the Local 1349 vice president, said the department has grown "numb" to the fact that the job has sat vacant since October 2013. "That has never happened in the history of the city of Mobile to my knowledge," said Walton. "But the problems you are seeing now … it’s a long list of concerns."
Walton said, for example, that firefighters have grumbled about their pay level in comparison to paramedics. He said a starting annual salary for a paramedic is around $45,000, while a starting firefighter – before a $5,000 salary increase was agreed by the council last year – was $31,000.
Barber, meanwhile, seems to have the initial confidence from council members in finding a chief.
Councilman John Williams said he’s prepared to vote for whoever Barber recommends.
Added Councilman Fred Richardson, who expressed concerns in 2013 with Smith’s appointment: "If you put it on the council agenda, I’m voting for it."
Said Councilwoman Bess Rich, chairwoman of the public safety committee: "The lack of a fire chief, I think, has been a really big part of why we are sitting here today. I’m hoping that it will be a No. 1 priority. When the council gets the individual and affirms, we’ll see a lot of this taken care of."
Indications are that Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s plan to reassign some top public safety officials will see rapid approval – and the Stimpson administration will move sooner rather than later to make additional changes at the Mobile Fire-Rescue Department.
Speaking during a news conference Monday, the mayor urged the council to vote in support of Paul "Randy" Smith as the new fire chief. An unanimous vote is no sure bet.
DeWayne Patrick, president of Local 1349, said the union’s approximately 500 members felt that Mobile Mayor Sandy Stimpson has the right choice in Paul "Randy" Smith as the next chief. Stimpson rescinded his recommendation for Smith on Monday.