The Las Vegas Fire Department chief is urging his firefighters to avoid spending time at the gym during work hours and not to "abuse sick leave" as his department battles poor public perception during its stand to avoid pay cuts and layoffs.
The chief's Feb. 10 e-mail to all staff, obtained by the Review-Journal through a public records request, sheds light on the department's struggles to win over the public and bureaucrats.
"Spending 2-3 hours a day at the gym like some crews do is just the kind of actions that tear us down," Fire Chief Greg Gammon wrote.
The image of firetrucks sitting in gym parking lots for hours is one of the biggest complaints Gammon has heard from the public, he said last week.
"There's a perception that's out there that they're at the gym more than they should, and all I can do is remind them ... just be mindful of the public perception right now," he said.
Among local agencies, the Las Vegas and Clark County fire departments have fought the hardest to avoid pay cuts. Las Vegas officials have proposed an 8 percent wage rollback in each of the next two years to avoid layoffs. The Fire Department is still negotiating with the city.
On average, Las Vegas Fire Department firefighters grossed about $110,000 last year. Of the department's $117.1 million budget, $98.3 million went toward 559 firefighters' wages and benefits.
The union that represents the department's firefighters has said that reductions will have damaging effects on the community, such as increasing emergency response times. It has set up a Web site, lasvegasfirefacts.com , where it says in bold letters, "STOP The City From Putting Your Life And Property In DANGER!"
But last week's memo indicates that may not be enough. Gammon has heard from citizens during a series of town hall meetings hosted by the city of Las Vegas.
"Throughout all of these town hall meetings that many of you have attended, you know that there is a certain amount of public displeasure with firefighters," Gammon wrote. "We're getting beat up by many but we're still praised by most."
Firefighters spending time at the gym has been one of the most frequent complaints.
The department requires firefighters to exercise 90 minutes each work day, which battalion chiefs are required to monitor. They can do that in their fire stations, which Gammon said usually have modest equipment, such as a bike and a treadmill. Or they can go to a public gym within their fire station's coverage area. They have to pay for their own gym membership and have to be ready to go to a call at all times.
Gammon said he doesn't believe his firefighters are spending too much time at the gym. Nevertheless, he recommended in the e-mail that firefighters use the fire station's equipment for the next couple of months "because we're going to continue to be in the spotlight and we need as much good publicity as we can get."
He also recommended firefighters limit the amount of sick leave they take. Gammon expects the department to save nearly $7.5 million in overtime costs between this fiscal year and last fiscal year because of firefighters not calling in sick.
This fiscal year, the department is expected to come in roughly $6 million under its $117 million budget, International Association of Firefighters Local 1285 President Dean Fletcher said.
"We're doing our part in our budget," the union president said.
Fletcher said he thinks the public is still supportive of firefighters despite receiving what he called "misinformation" about the department from the media.
Carole Vilardo, president of the Nevada Taxpayers Association, a government spending watchdog group, said the public's good will toward firefighters might only go so far.
"I think the public still holds those positions of firefighters in high regard, but there's a point of practicality," Vilardo said.
The public might react negatively when they see what the economy has done to them and witness a group, such as firefighters, being favored.
"That doesn't tend to sit well, regardless of what the group is," she said.
Michael Green, a history professor at the College of Southern Nevada, said the push against salary cutbacks could signal that the firefighters' union, which has historically not been active in local politics, could become a bigger player.
"Maybe now they're going to have a bull's eye on them," he said. "They've gotten a lot of attention lately on overtime in particular and some of the salaries."
McClatchy-Tribune News Service