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KFOX14 Investigates: Police shortage forces firefighters to stand down, wait on calls

El Paso Police unit (KFOX14)

The city of El Paso is preparing to add $6 million to the short-handed police department's budget, which will also help the fire department.

KFOX14 chief investigative reporter Genevieve Curtis rode along with firefighters to expose the challenges they face when there aren’t enough officers.

When firefighters get a call, it’s a race against the clock to help people.

But sometimes it's a case of hurry up and wait.

“Firefighters are type A personalities, they want to get in there,” said Joe Tellez, president of the El Paso fire union, IAFF Local 51.

In the city of El Paso, firefighters and paramedics, not only respond to medical calls..,

they also go places where crimes have just been committed or are in the process of being committed.

But they have to wait for police before getting on scene.

“They are not equipped, they are not trained to handle a law enforcement aspect of a call,” said former Fire Chief Sam Pena.

Even though people need help.

“It is troubling. It is troubling,” said Pena.

With a shortage of officers, that can mean firefighters are waiting for hours at the scene before they can make entry.

Police union President Ron Martin says the blue family knows what their counterparts are going through.

“Can you imagine being a firefighter dispatched to a scene where five people have been shot and you get dispatched and you have to wait for PD? That is agonizing,” said Martin.

KFOX14 Investigates pulled the call records for a four-month period in 2016.

Of the nearly 11,000 calls firefighters responded to:

  • More than 400 were for domestic incidents
  • 280 for assaults
  • 120 for narcotics
  • 50 robbery calls
  • 17 burglary calls
  • 40 unknown suspect calls
  • 18 mischief calls

Those are all mostly police issues, but may also involve a medical call.

Which is why former Chief Pena said firefighters are also dispatched.

“It can turn violent, it can turn deadly, it's inherently understood,” said Pena.

More than 700 times in that four-month period,. Fire was sent to “unknown problems.”.

Meaning many times, firefighters didn't know what they were heading int into, and because of the police shortage, KFOX14 Investigates found firefighters were almost always the first to arrive.

“For us, (domestic violence is) a low-priority call because the assailant is no longer there. But for fire and medical it is a priority call because somebody is injured. Well, the dynamic of each call changes, if. If the guy shows back up -- what are they supposed to do?” said Martin.

That can put crews into a compromised situation.

“Eventually it's going to burst,” said Martin.

Firefighters don't have guns, Tasers or bulletproof vests.

“It's unacceptable to lose firefighters or police officers in the line of duty,” said Pena.

Even on routine calls, like car crashes, firefighters wait for police, something we saw on a ride along-along earlier this year.

“It's frustrating. We are trained to respond quickly, take care of business. Standing by isn’t really in a firefighter's nature,” said Tellez.

With City Council planning to add millions to the police budget, Police Chief Greg Allen said a majority of that additional funding will pay for more officers.

“The safety of our firefighters and our police officers is concerning, it should be concerning for everybody,” said Tellez. “Bottom line, we are going to serve the public no matter what happens,” he added.

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