Updated: 9:49 a.m. Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2010 | Posted: 2:16 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010

New Supervisors: 30 – New Firefighters: 0

TACOMA, Wash. —

The city of Tacoma is letting 31 firefighter positions languish, unfulfilled. At the same time, Fire Chief Ronald Stephens has announced he’s promoting the largest number of supervisors in department history.

Dozens of pay raises and other costs associated with the move during a tough budget year caught the attention of Team 7 Investigative Reporter Chris Halsne.

New battalion chiefs, new Captains, a new deputy fire chief, a new fire department manager, the list of recent promotions is extensive. Tacoma Fire Chief Ron Stephens says it’s part of a plan to make emergency response safer.

When Tacoma fire trucks roll out to an emergency, there's a new network of managers to watch over the scene. A recent organizational reshuffling didn't allow for a single baseline firefighter to get hired back.

However, according to a list of Promotional Wage and Salary Adjustments, acquired by Team 7 Investigators under the Open Records Act, 30 employees took on new supervisor duties with better pay and better job titles since the beginning of 2009. Tacoma Fire Department Promotions [pdf]

Chief Ron Stephens defended the changes when he spoke with Halsne last week.

“The people that I promoted are the same firefighters out there responding to calls. It's not just entry level firefighters that respond to calls. I expect, well, all of our supervisors are working supervisors, except for the battalion chiefs.”

Who, according to internal memos and invoices, apparently needed $47,362 in office renovations and a pair of new pickup trucks to do their new jobs. These are tiny costs compared to the entire Tacoma fire department’s multi-million dollar budget, but for resident John Bernardo, it’s the principal that bothers him.

“Everybody wants to be a chief.” Bernardo told Halsne from his front porch. “There are not enough people actually doing leg work and if we're going to create jobs – let’s look at that. Take some of the stuff off the top and use it somewhere else where it can be groundwork. Emergency services - we need more of those.”

Bernardo watched from across the street last May while two neighborhood homes burned. It only took three minutes for a fire truck to arrive. The house was gone in 10. He says the department performed admirably that day, but he doesn't think 30 more supervisors are the answer to better service.

Bernardo says “That's a large number. I mean, quite seriously, the places that should be cut are administrative etcetera. One of the things to look at first before we starting cutting community services here. Emergency services - it's like every second counts.”

Chief Stephens told Team 7 Investigators he's figured out how to offset this year’s promotional pay raises within his budget, but there simply isn't money to hire the city's missing firefighters yet.

“The City Manager’s mandate is we are to make cuts where we can and not affect service. That's been a very difficult challenge.”

Tacoma City Manager, Eric Anderson, tells Halsne he hopes there will be money to start hiring firefighters next year. If that happens, residents wouldn't see them on a truck until 2012.

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