CLEARWATER — Too many chiefs, not enough Indians. That's been the rap on the Clearwater Fire Department for years.
The city's firefighters union and others have repeatedly asked: Does Clearwater have too many assistant fire chiefs and division fire chiefs?
It turns out that the answer is no, there aren't too many — at least, that's the conclusion of consultants the city hired to examine its fire rescue operations.
"You've got a highly efficient, well-managed operation in the Clearwater Fire Department," consultant Travis Miller told the City Council on Thursday night.
The firefighters union still begs to differ.
Miller is a vice president with Matrix Consulting Group, the same firm that analyzed Clearwater's Police Department last year and suggested a million dollars in budget cuts.
This time around, the analysts found fewer obvious ways to save at the Fire Department. Their message to officials was this: Cut too deep, and you'll slow down emergency responses.
They didn't recommend cutting any positions. However, in a pinch, they did outline a couple of ways that the city could function with slightly fewer paramedics and firefighters on duty. Those cutbacks would save up to $616,000 a year.
The consultant's study cost $89,000.
After hearing the message that the Fire Department is well-managed, City Council members asked questions about Matrix Consulting's qualifications. They sought to assure Clearwater residents that the consultant's report is an unbiased, independent, expert opinion.
That's because the city's management has long been at odds with the firefighters union over pay and other issues.
The union has won a number of grievances protesting unfair labor practices by the city. Union members recently rejected the city's latest contract offer.
Union president Gerard Devivo said Clearwater should still look at cutting fire administration before reducing the number of firefighters or medics. He noted that Clearwater has 15 fire chiefs, while St. Petersburg, a bigger city, has 12.
Fire Chief Jamie Geer and the consultant, Miller, said some assistant chiefs in Clearwater perform the same functions that supervisors with different titles, such as captain, do in other departments.
"It doesn't mean you have too many supervisors and managers," Miller told City Council members. "It just means they like to use the word 'chief.' … You do not have too many chiefs."
Clearwater has eight fire stations. They house eight fire engines, six rescue units and two ladder trucks.
Consultants said the city could reduce the number of firefighters on its ladder trucks from four to three, saving $486,000 a year.
The city also could replace some paramedics with emergency medical technicians, who have less training. Here's how that would shake out:
All six of the rescue units have two paramedics on board. That wouldn't change.
Five of the fire engines carry one paramedic each and provide what's called "advanced life support." The other three engines carry EMTs who provide basic life support.
The consultants said the city could put EMTs, instead of paramedics, on three more engines — at Station 45 downtown, Station 48 near the Long Center and Station 49 behind Clearwater Mall. (Each of those stations also has a rescue unit.)
The cuts — involving ladder trucks and paramedics — would amount to $616,000 a year, but city officials didn't embrace them.
City Manager Bill Horne said he'll look at the potential savings when proposing next year's budget. Clearwater faces a $9 million budget shortfall.
"Right now, my sense is there's probably a lot of support for not doing those things," Horne said. "But I wouldn't take them off the table."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4160.