Tallahassee, Florida Firefighters Fan Flames for More Pay

Lt. Jarvis Bedford is quick to point out Tallahassee firefighters do more than "pour white stuff on the red stuff."

On Wednesday, nearly 100 firefighters and their families - wearing red shirts - filled the City Commission chambers hoping to pour it on thick to persuade commissioners to increase their pay.

But the city Fire Department's argument for raises is more than just sympathy when compared to departments of similar-sized cities in the state.

"It's not just firefighters being affected, it's our families," said Bedford, vice president of the Tallahassee Professional Fire Fighters, the local bargaining unit for the department. "What we're saying is we want to be compensated like other departments in the state."

City and union officials recently broke off talks for a new service contract mainly because the two sides couldn't agree on a salary package. City commissioners, who now hold the key in negotiations, met in executive session Wednesday, but did not produce a formal offer, union officials said. City officials would like to meet with the union Tuesday.

City officials declined to comment on negotiations but Mayor John Marks said the city "intends to be fair to the firefighters."

Over the next three years, firefighters want a 20-percent pay increase and a boost in starting salary from $31,357 to $32,678.

The city's most recent offer has salary increases of as much as 13.5 percent, but also includes a $320,000 bonus pool pushing the package to nearly an 18-percent increase over what firefighters receive currently.

Both sides might not be seeing eye to eye because they are looking in different directions.

Travis Oaks, chairman of the union, said the city is using smaller fire departments such as Panama City as comparable wages. He puts Tallahassee's department on par with areas such as Fort Lauderdale, Orlando, Clearwater and St. Petersburg, which have similar service populations and respond to a comparable number of emergency calls annually.

With more than 200 employees, the Fire Department responds to more than 33,000 fire and emergency medical calls annually. It is also the unit called in for hazardous-material spills.

According to a wages survey by the Florida Professional Fire Fighters, a statewide organization, a Tallahassee firefighter can earn as much as 21 percent less per hour than in those communities. Overall, the Fire Department's starting salary ranks 46th among 64 departments in the state.

Some firefighters blamed past union leadership for city salaries not keeping up with the state average.

Bedford said wages have fallen behind because there is no competition from another local department to drive wages. Noting the Police Department's success in netting increased salaries for its employees during union negotiations, Bedford said agencies such as the Leon County Sheriff's Office and the state Highway Patrol give the city a mile marker for salaries.

City police officers make about $18 an hour compared with $11.38 for firefighters. According to city records, animal-control officers also make more than firefighters at $12.21 an hour.

"We're by ourselves," Bedford said. "But now what you are seeing is people will stay for a year or two then leave the city for higher-paying jobs."

But the option most firefighters take is getting a second job.

Some firefighters have started lawn-care or roofing services, which they work on their days off.

Several signs held up by children Wednesday referenced firefighters' need for higher pay because of all the time spent away from home.

One sign read "My dad works 2 jobs because we can't live off one." Another read "Firefighters earn less than a dog catcher."

Lee Rutledge, a firefighter for six years, rushed his wife and two small children to the meeting after leaving his second job as a construction worker. He said he spends about 96 hours per week away from home because of his jobs. Firefighters usually work 53-hour weeks.

"I'm missing first steps and all kinds of stuff because I have to work two jobs to provide for my family," he said. "If I had my way, I wouldn't ask to get paid like a lawyer or doctor. I just want to be paid fairly."