NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Firefighters here are planning a public
relations campaign as they push a pay proposal union leaders see as
key to helping boost morale and fill the department's reduced
ranks.
Union leaders plan to propose a 10 percent, across the board pay
raise for all firefighters, which they see as more in-line with
what Mayor Ray Nagin recently proposed for police officers. The
mayor has proposed a pay raise for starting firefighters, but union
head Nicholas Felton Jr. says that's inadequate.
The issue is expected to come up Wednesday, when a civil service
commission meets to consider the mayor's pay idea. The commission
may approve or change the mayor's plan, before sending a
recommendation to city council members, the city's deputy director
of personnel said Tuesday.
"We are in a crisis situation," Felton, president of the New
Orleans Fire Fighters Association local 632, told a news conference
in front of Fire Station 7, which is still unusable nearly a year
after Hurricane Katrina hit. "Our fire department has ruptured, we
have a breach in the wall, and we've got to act now."
The city has fewer firefighters than it did before Katrina,
leading to slower response times for available crews and creating
safety concerns, both for firefighters and the public, Felton said.
Finding and keeping firefighters is also a growing problem:
First-year firefighters currently make about $8.24 an hour, Felton
said, noting prospects could earn more working at a fast-food
restaurant or in another city. The union claims that, under the
current pay plan, it takes a firefighter about nine years to earn
$10 an hour.
According to information provided by the union, a New Orleans
firefighter with a year on the job earns an annual base salary of
$21,130. That's less than cities such as Wichita, Kan., Omaha,
Neb., and Tulsa, Okla., according to the union data.
E-mail messages for representatives of the mayor were not
immediately returned.
Tom Riddle, labor relations specialist for the state federation
of the International Association of Fire Firefighters in Oklahoma,
said the average entry-level base wage in that state is $23,000 a
year to $25,000 a year. Recruitment, he said, hasn't been a
problem, nor has turnover. Pay, benefits and hours are good, he
said. Additionally, "you have public standing," he said.
"They're America's heroes."
The privately funded PR campaign planned for New Orleans, dubbed
"Come Hell or High Water," is set to include at least one
billboard, Felton said. He did not disclose the cost of the effort
or who was involved.

(Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)