NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES
IRVING — While Irving city leaders were spending millions to develop an entertainment center, the Irving Fire Department budget was being slashed — by more than three percent over two years.
And while the Fire Chief says safety has improved, firefighters tonight say the public's safety is increasingly at risk.
In the past two years, budget cuts in Irving have stripped about $3 million from the fire department's budge — from $36 million in 2009-2010 to $33 million this fiscal year.
While the fire chief says response times and safety inspections have actually improved, some firefighters say the figures are dangerously deceptive.
July 27th, 2011.
Irving firefighters rush to extinguish flames racing through a crowded apartment complex.
Every second counts.
But when the first crew, Engine One, arrives at 10:47, U.S. Labor Department safety protocols prevent them from attacking the fire.
According to OSHA regulations, it takes a four-man crew to safely fight a fire — two inside the structure, two outside.
Irving's fire budget affords only three firefighters per truck.
According to the incident report, Engine One "began attacking" the fire only after the "IRIC" — the Irving Rapid Intervention Crew — was on scene. That meant waiting for a second truck with a fourth firefighter to arrive before being able to battle this fire.
Irving Fire Captain John Smith remembers as his truck pulled up on the scene to assist Engine One. "By not being able to go inside [at the time] they were saying, 'We are writing this building off,'" he said. "It's going to become a defensive fire, and it did — immediately."
The fire was spreading out of control. Smith remembers feeling the delay would be costly.
"My truck company was one of the first trucks in, and Engine One was still waiting when I got there to start an interior tack to make any kind of an effort to stop it," Smith recalled.
Irving firefighters we talked to blame budget cuts for limiting the department to three-man crews and making their work more dangerous.
"If we are standing around outside waiting, the longer that thing burns, the more risk we take when we step inside," Smith said.
Firefighters also say budget cuts are responsible for a backlog of fire code inspections.
Firefighters say 43 percent of Irving's buildings have not been inspected in more than two years, and 15 percent have not been inspected in over five years — including the Matheson Tri-Gas facility filled with explosive materials, the U.S. Plating plant.
Mohawk Labs in Irving has not been inspected since June of 2008, according to public records.
"The public was told that all inspections are being done within a two-year time frame," said Irving firefighter Rick Sanderson. "That's just not true."
But according to Fire Chief Mario Molina, Irving has increased the number of fire inspections from previous years. Molina said the public is safe, and that no one has died in an Irving fire in the past year-and-a-half.
He said the cardiac survival rate is double the national average, and he has decreased the average response time by 12 percent over the past five years to 4 minutes and 19 seconds.
But News 8 has learned that response time to fires is based on the arrival of a limited three-person crew.
"Those particular units can start activities — be it evacuating the occupants, sizing up the situation, calling for additional resources," Chief Molina argued.
However, if the arrival of the fourth person is factored in, according to firefighters, the average response time would go from 4 minutes and 19 seconds to five minutes. And in nearly half of all the fires in Irving last year, the fourth-man response time was greater than five minutes.
News 8 has also learned that four-person fire crews are standard in all major Texas cities, including Dallas, Houston, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Austin.
A four-person crew is also the standard in smaller cities like Abilene, Amarillo, Baytown, Galveston, and Lubbock.
Chief Molina says that even with three-person crews and recent budget cuts, his department is run effectively.
"The citizens of Irving are safer today than they were three years ago," he said. "The results speak for themselves."
In the last two years, the Irving city budget has been cut by $7 million. About $3 million — roughly 43 percent of all city cuts in those two years — came from the Irving Fire Department budget.
In the coming weeks, Irving city officials will consider borrowing $150 million to help build an entertainment center complex in Las Colinas.