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In their own words: A note from your friendly firefighters

Submitted by on 1, December 4, 2008 – 7:45 amNo Comment

Like many California cities, Alameda is facing a few budget challenges. So perhaps it’s no surprise that there’s a little bit of blame going around. One target: Alameda’s firefighters (who, we’ll note right now, are in the midst of contract negotiations with the city).

Some say they’re just too damn expensive, and that they’re a cause of the city’s budget woes. But they say that’s hooey. And they’re going on the offensive to make their case, holding town hall meetings and writing to local media outlets.

We got an editorial from Domenick Weaver, president of Alameda’s firefighters union, making their case. Here’s what he had to say:

During the process of developing the budget of the City of Alameda, the election, and the sale of AP&T’s (telecom business), many questions have been raised about the fiscal practices and management of the city. Some questions have arisen about public safety contracts, the overtime firefighters work, post employment benefits, and where our firefighters live. I would like to set the record straight as to how these things came to be, and dispel rumors that the firefighters are out to “bankrupt the city.”

Since 1997, the Alameda Fire Department staffs five fire engines, two fire trucks and three ambulances with 27 firefighters, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In 2001, two allocated street level firefighter positions were frozen and unfunded in order to pay for a negotiated improvement to the retirement system. In 2005, six additional allocated street level firefighter positions were frozen and unfunded by city officials as a “cost-saving measure.”

The department has been plagued with mandatory (forced) overtime that requires members of an understaffed department to work an additional 20 percent annually. By 2007, the department incurred over $2.2 million in overtime costs. The firefighters have been on record with city officials back to 2005 that these practices were not only fiscally irresponsible but also dangerous. Injuries have risen notably since the city implemented the policy to run short, leading to more vacancies and more overtime.

When you see the reported salaries of Alameda firefighters, that number is likely to include at least two additional months of work in overtime dollars. It should also be noted that overtime earnings are NOT pensionable.

Firefighting and responding to emergency medical calls is a dangerous occupation. Firefighters have a 100 percent increased chance of contracting certain cancers, and are exposed to highly communicable diseases on a regular basis. We work in environments of extreme heat and stress, close quarters and conditions that can be described as “less than desirable.” These increased risk factors and exposures are brought into the firefighter’s home.

Currently, Alameda firefighters receive post employment benefits that include health care for themselves and their spouses. The city pays for the health care plan until the retired firefighter reaches Medicare age, and after that, pays for a Medicare supplement plan at a considerably reduced rate. To qualify for this benefit, firefighters must have at least five years of service and have reached retirement age. In Alameda, the average years of service from a firefighter are 27. In the past 15 years, one employee of the Fire Department received the post employment benefit of retiree health care with only five years and one month of service to the City of Alameda. That employee was a fire chief who was hired from an outside agency.

When comments about how the majority of Alameda firefighters do not live in Alameda arise, it needs to be pointed out that there are 27 firefighters on duty and living in town every day. They buy their food daily at the local grocery stores, clothing and personal needs from other merchants, and bank at local financial institutions. The firefighters also sponsor community events, youth sports teams, and many charitable causes. The city sets the requirements for the job, and then must advertise to gather enough qualified candidates from all over. Hopefully, future department leaders will place a priority on generating interest among local kids who one day would like to serve the community of Alameda and provide training opportunities to place them on the right path.

The Alameda firefighters are not to blame for the city’s financial woes. In fact, recent salary and benefit surveys indicate that Alameda firefighters are right in the middle of comparable agencies. It makes no sense to say that the firefighters want to “bankrupt the City.” That would be incredibly self-destructive. Perhaps what it is time for is an independent audit of this city’s financial practices and the management theories being applied.

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