Financial Hard Times Means Layoffs for Firefighters

Editor's Note: An abbreviated version of this article appears in the February 2010 issue of Firehouse Magazine, starting on page 60. Also read "Telling it Like it Is - Doing less with less. When will we learn?" and respond with your thoughts and...

IAFF President Schaitberger said he is encouraged by the changes in the SAFER grant program that will allow departments to rehire people previously laid off to restore positions lost.

"This money is essentially free money for two years," Schaitberger said. "There is no cap on firefighters and there's no match required by municipalities."

One of Schaitberger's biggest concerns is, of course, firefighter safety. He's concerned about municipalities that have decided to reduce the number of firefighters assigned to apparatus. Politicians shouldn't adopt a philosophy of downsizing without first considering the safety of firefighters, he said.

The IAFF has taken the position that it's best to keep at least four firefighters on each apparatus and, if reductions are absolutely necessary, it's better to idle an apparatus or even temporarily close the station.

Schaitberger equated understaffing apparatus as overcrowding in a classroom.

"You wouldn't want 60 kids in a classroom," he said. "…There's no need to take chances. Firefighters work in very difficult conditions."

Orlando firefighters were so committed to protecting jobs and keeping firefighters safe, the members of Orlando Fire Department, IAFF Local 1365 made some serious concessions to preserve firefighters' positions.

Steve Clelland is president of the Local 1365 and he said his department is in "limbo" when it comes to layoffs.

The city notified many of its emergency services employees, police and fire included, of a need to reduce personnel in March to make up a $40 million shortfall in the budget, Clelland said. City officials asked each department in the city to make a 12 percent reduction in their budgets, he said, noting that the only thing left to cut was personnel.

"The budget was already very tight," he said. "There was no fat to cut, so we had to look at personnel."

The city notified the union that 46 firefighters would be laid off on Oct. 1, plus 26 that had lost through attrition, representing about a 14 percent reduction in force of a department comprised of about 500.

Rather than take the hit, the union decided to compromise and figure out what kinds of things its membership could give up make up the revenue shortfall.

The members decided to forgo first quarter 2010 raises, made concessions in education expenses and uniform allowances and gave up physicals for a year.

"We were the only union to compromise to save jobs," Clelland said.

The members did so with the understanding that the city would apply and, hopefully, be successful in getting a SAFER grant, Clelland said, praising IAFF headquarters for working with the city to make sure the grant was in place and done properly. The application was filed long before the deadline and Clelland said the city hoped to hear by Feb. 6 whether it was awarded or not.

"We can't support that forever and the city knows that and knows we are doing everything we can to keep those jobs," he said.

In addition to the jobs themselves, Clelland said the city's Insurance Services Office (ISO) rating is at stake. Orlando spent years and millions to achieve its Class 1 status. Layoffs would wipe away all that effort in a heartbeat, dropping the city back to a Class 3 or 4 rating.

"That might not mean a lot to the residents, but it will mean a lot to the businesses," Clelland said.

If the layoffs take effect, and the firefighters still have active pink slips in their possession, the first service to go will be EMS responses. Clelland said the city has eight rescue trucks that help out with the ambulances on medical calls. Next to go will be an engine company, then a heavy rescue, and none are acceptable, Clelland said.

The Orlando Fire Department, founded in 1885, has not had any layoffs since the Great Depression and, if Clelland is successful in his efforts to preserve jobs, they won't in this recession, considered to be the worst economic down turn since the depression.

Clelland said Orlando, which is home to Disney World, Sea World, and Universal Studios, is dependent on tourists for income and on its reputation as a safe place to visit. It also has a bright future, once the economic slump is in the rear view mirror, unlike some parts of the nation where businesses have shuttered, never to be opened again.