Wichita firefighters protest at City Hall
Wichita firefighters rallied outside City Hall on June 28 to protest for higher wages, in part to improve recruitment and retention of staff. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

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On the morning of June 28, Jeff Erker stood outside Wichita City Hall with his daughter and a sign that read “Support Wichita Firefighters.”

Trucks and cars sped past, honking their support for the higher wages Erker and other Wichita firefighters are seeking. Erker — who has been with the department for 11 years — said pay is a central issue because the department has struggled to recruit and retain staff in recent years.  

As firefighters leave, Erker said the losses are felt deeply because he feels there aren’t enough firefighters budgeted by the city to begin with.  

“Our staffing is lower than most cities our size,” Erker said. “When we get to a fire, we’re doing more with less. It’s taxing on our bodies.” 

The Wichita Fire Department had 417 firefighters in 2021, which is about 11 firefighters per 10,000 residents, according to census data. That’s roughly a quarter less than the average number of firefighters per capita in comparable Midwestern cities identified by City Manager Robert Layton.   

A data analysis by The Wichita Beacon confirms that the majority of Wichita city departments have lower numbers of full-time staff per capita than other major cities, on average. In 2021, Wichita had about seven city employees per 1,000 city residents, the 40th lowest number out of the 50 most populous cities. The comparison only included employees in departments that exist within the city of Wichita.

Union representatives and some city department heads said that a low level of baseline staffing, combined with a labor shortage playing out across the country, impacts city services. But Mayor Brandon Whipple and Layton both pointed out that it’s difficult to accurately compare staffing across cities, especially because Wichita contracts with private companies to meet public needs. Layton also added that Wichita is more comparable to nearby cities in the Midwest than those on the east or west coasts. 

“The numbers might not be the full story,” Whipple said.

How Wichita compares to other cities

Staffing has a real impact on both the fire department and the residents served by it, Erker said.

“We’re pulling up to a fire with three guys, where we should have another one or two,” Erker said. “And we’re still trying to accomplish the same work. It’s harder on us. It’s not as good for you, if your house is on fire, because we’re short-staffed.” 

Whipple concurred that the fire department is in need of more staffing.  

“From the conversations that I’ve had, it’s pretty amazing that our firefighters have been able to do what they have done with the staff that they have and the resources that they have,” Whipple said. He included staffing for the fire department as one of his top budget priorities this year

In 2021, the Wichita Fire Department had about 2.5 fewer firefighters per 10,000 residents than the average of the top 50 most populated cities in the U.S. The trend holds true from parks to police to public works — most Wichita city departments have fewer employees per capita than the national average among the top 50 biggest cities. 

At Wichita Park and Recreation, Director Troy Houtman said staffing prevents the department from providing the level of services he would like, such as keeping parks clean. 

“We’ve been getting a lot of dumping in all of our parks. People will just come and dump a couch, or overfill all of our trash cans with their household trash,” Houtman said. “And I don’t have the staff or equipment to stay on top of all that.”

Whipple pointed out that some parks and recreation services are no longer done by city employees but through private companies that the city contracts with, including lawn care and Century II management.  

“We’re saving money, and we’ve got as many people working on this stuff that we normally would, but we have less people working for the city as an employee of the city in those situations,” Whipple said.

Layton said that using contractors — which is also how the city provides street maintenance services, solid waste management and some housing and community development services — is an attempt to make the city financially sustainable when it goes through economic downturns. 

“By having outside contractors, we can stretch our dollars, but we can also adjust service levels without laying people off,” Layton said. 

Staffing struggles pre-date COVID

At the Wichita Fire Department, complaints about staffing go back years, according to Ted Bush, president of  International Association of Fire Fighters Local 135, the union representing firefighters in the department.  

“The problem is that through the years they’ve kept the same staffing, the budgeted levels of firefighters,” Bush said.

Since 2012, the city has added about eight full-time employees to the fire department, according to city budgets. Bush said this is not enough, pointing to the city’s own data showing that the department is increasingly less likely to respond to fire calls in four minutes or less — a benchmark the city adheres to — over the past five years.

“This is staffing,” Bush said. “When I can staff more trucks around the city, the response times go up.”

Layton said that the city is in the midst of a study to determine whether more resources should be dedicated to the fire department — though he said he doesn’t attribute all of the drop in response times to staffing. The location of fire stations is also an important factor, he said. 

“We need to improve response times. It’s just how we get there,” Layton said. “It’s not a matter of just throwing people at it, it’s a matter of looking at the total resource allocation.” 

Other departments spoke similarly of staffing problems pre-dating COVID. Houtman said many park maintenance positions were removed following the 2008 recession and replaced with mowing contracts during the summer. But the contracts didn’t include all the work — including picking up trash, making repairs and planting trees — city employees did throughout the rest of the year, Houtman said. 

Since then, it’s been difficult to maintain the parks in the winter, he said. 

“There’s a fine line between being efficient and not being able to complete all the services that people expect,” Houtman said. 

Layton said the city “would like to do better” in the area of park maintenance, but it has to balance doing so with maintaining public safety and not increasing the cost of government. 

“The public has made it really clear that they don’t want us to increase the cost of government,” Layton said, adding that this means the city has to “find efficiencies, introduce new technologies and in some cases, as we’ve done, contract out services.”

This year, the city authorized the parks department to hire more positions than in previous budgets, he added.

The Wichita firefighters’ union is asking for higher wages during negotiations with the city this summer, and Mayor Brandon Whipple wants to increase staffing. (Alex Unruh/The Beacon)

City staffing impacted by COVID, labor shortage

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the city instituted a hiring freeze

At least 139 positions were held vacant due to the pandemic, according to last year’s budget. Layton said the city is now seeking to hire for all of those positions but is having trouble finding applicants. Though the city increased the budget for staffing in some departments in recent years, including police, they can’t find people to fill them. 

David Inkelaar, president of Wichita’s Fraternal Order of Police, attributed this to “how our profession is portrayed in the media outlets.” Other city employees and union representatives said low compensation made it difficult to retain and recruit. 

To combat this, the city raised the minimum wage to $15 an hour for full-time city employees last August and gave $1,000 bonuses to employees represented by the Service Employees International Union who worked in-person during the pandemic. Police officers also received salary increases and $1,000 retention bonuses in their latest contract. 

But Houtman said that the pay still isn’t been enough to attract all the employees he needs. 

And for Erker, pay may be the reason he leaves. 

“Before I became a firefighter, I was a mechanic,” Erker said. “My wife’s been pushing me to just quit and go back, because I could make twice as much money and be home with my kids every night.” 

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Hack covers local government for The Wichita Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @CeliaHack.