Florida Firefighters Unite in Protest

When Joaquin Amador became a firefighter, he wanted to work with the best. So, he joined Hialeah's nationally recognized fire department, then among the highest paid and most respected departments in the county.

''At the time I got hired, it was the place to work,'' Amador said. ''We were the highest paid, Class 1 rating. Everybody knew each other; camaraderie was really strong.'' That was nine years ago, and times have changed.

On Saturday, Amador, along with nearly 70 of his fellow Hialeah firefighters -- about one-third of the department -- showed up at Miami-Dade County's Fire Rescue headquarters to apply for jobs with the county's fire department, said Luis Espinosa, president of the Hialeah Firefighters Union. Others who filed applications early came to support their colleagues, Espinosa said.

Ironically, Amador said, he initially turned down an offer to join Miami-Dade Fire Rescue in favor of joining Hialeah's force.

'Now, I'm like, 'You know what? I made a big mistake. I should have just gone to the county. But you have no way of knowing these things,' '' Amador said.

Hialeah City Council President Julio Robaina said Monday it's likely the county hiring process would take between 18 months and two years, and the firefighters' actions were ''a way of putting pressure on the administration.''

I think this was a very tactical move on the union's part,'' Robaina said.

In part, the showing at the fire rescue headquarters was a symbolic gesture by the firefighters to make known the extent of grievances they have with the city. But for some -- like Amador -- it was also a potential way out of a no-win situation.

Morale among Hialeah's beleaguered firefighters has reached an all-time low, some firefighters say. They've worked without a contract for about two years. And they haven't received a pay increase for even longer, having voted down an unacceptable offer from the city.

As a result, the firefighters say, many experienced paramedics are leaving the department for others with better pay. The level of experience among Hialeah's firefighters has dropped significantly in return, they say, with the force now evenly split between those with more than 10 years of experience and those with less.

The main point of contention among firefighters is the unwillingness of Mayor Raul Martinez to grant firefighters retroactive pay raises. Martinez has countered that the city more than makes up for it with the plum benefits the firefighters receive.

''I challenge anybody in the state of Florida to show me salaries and benefits that you guys have,'' Martinez said during a meeting of the City Council on March 22.

Both sides are back at the negotiating table for a new contract. Espinosa said he met with Martinez two weeks ago and submitted a proposal that would include a roughly 9 percent pay increase -- no retroactive pay.

Still, he said, that's less than what the firefighters feel they deserve.

''Compare us to other cities and it's ridiculous to stay here,'' said Darrell Cox, a paramedic with the Hialeah Fire Department for about seven years, who said he earns less money than some rookies in other departments.

Cox, who had to work on Saturday, said he filled out an application with the county as soon as enrollment opened and also filed one with Broward County. If he leaves for either department, he will lose the time he has put in toward receiving a pension and start from scratch.

''I'll start all over again,'' Cox said. ''I'm 40 years old, and it's worth it to me.''

Distributed by the Associated Press