The Woodlands firefighters approve contract

By Heath Hixson, Courier staff

December 22, 2002

THE WOODLANDS, TX - Firefighters in The Woodlands will receive pay increases and more retirement benefits under a contract recently finalized between the firefighter union and The Woodlands Fire Department.
Members of The Woodlands Professional Firefighters Association Local 3846 approved a three-year employment contract, which provides increases in benefits and salaries, making the department's employee agreement more competitive with other area fire agencies, officials with the department and union said.

"What we mostly concentrated on were the benefits part of our agreement," said John Mohr, union president. "They (members) were pretty supportive, we had over 75 percent vote for the contract. We needed an increase in the benefits part of it and they were supportive."

Provisions in the agreement grant the 56 union members a 2 percent pay increase in 2004 and a 1 percent pay raise in 2005. The contract also provides an additional 3 percent increase in pay for firefighters assigned to hazardous materials or technical rescue teams, such as repelling. The agreement includes pay incentives for those firefighters that gain more certification, training or education.

The contract also increases retirement benefits for union members. Under the approved plan, the Fire Department will pay up to $300 a month in insurance for retirees. Additionally, the firefighters will receive increases over the next three years in the department's contributions to employee 401(k) plans.

Next year, the company will contribute up to 10 percent of a firefighter's salary to the retirement fund. In 2004, that amount will increase to 11 percent; and in 2005, the amount increases to a maximum of 13 percent. By the end of the contract, the amount contributed to the retirement funds by the company will be a two-for-one match of the employee's contribution, Mohr said.

The Fire Department board of directors easily approved the contract to maintain the fire protection service provided to residents of The Woodlands.

"It was successfully negotiated by both sides," said Bruce Tough, Fire Department board president. "I think the service is exceptional, and we want to maintain that exceptional fire service."

Other provisions under the agreement provide pay for all hours firefighters are required to be on shift at the firehouse, regardless of whether they are sleeping. For instance, firefighters often work 48-hour or 72-hour shifts and must sleep at the firehouse. In the past contract, they were not paid for sleeping unless they were awakened by an emergency call. The new contract includes payment for those hours spent sleeping.

Additionally, starting pay for a firefighter will be $33,000 a year for EMS-certified employees. Those with paramedic certifications will make $35,000. Pay is based on a career ladder scale, which is not based on seniority, but certification, education and training, said Susan Welbes, The Community Associations director of human resources.

The Fire Department is funded through property fees that residents or businesses of The Woodlands pay to The Woodlands Association, The Woodlands Community Association or The Woodlands Commercial Owners Association. The Town Center Improvement District also pays into the pool to fund the department through its sales tax.

Next year's approved Fire Department budget calls for nearly $8 million in spending, which is a 27.2 percent increase in spending from this year's budget of more than $6.2 million. Much of the increase ($1.4 million) is for salary costs, due to the opening of a fifth fire station in the Village of Sterling Ridge. The department is expected to hire 21 new staff members, which includes 12 for the new station, three dispatchers and six firefighters for the other four firehouses in The Woodlands.