Jan. 09--The city plans to cut the Tulsa Fire Department's Public Safety Education Unit -- including a post held by "Huffy the Clown" -- and the fire union president's job, the Tulsa World learned Wednesday.
Chad Miller, president of the Tulsa International Association of Fire Fighters Local 176, said the order to reassign him appears to be political payback for the union's outspoken positions. Miller said the order came three hours after the city learned that he was talking to the World about the city's malfunctioning fire dispatch system.
City Manager Jim Twombly said the decision to eliminate administrative positions is part of a wider plan to address problems in the city budget. "By moving certain administrative people out to the field -- they are trained firefighters -- by moving them out to the field, it draws back on overtime and gets more calls answered," he said.
The position cuts are part of a larger plan by the city to deal with a $6 million budget shortfall. The plan will be presented to city councilors Thursday.
Twombly said details of the plan could not be made public until Thursday's council meeting but that moving employees to other positions is just one part of the plan.
"We have positions throughout the city in various departments that, as part of the plan, there is a commitment to hold those positions vacant so we will continue to generate savings," Twombly said.
Agendas and documents related to the matter were not available on the city council's website Wednesday evening.
Miller said he is concerned about the city's plan to eliminate the department's education unit, especially at a time when fires involving injury and death have spiked during the cold snap.
On Wednesday, a man was severely burned in an apartment fire downtown. On Monday, a Tulsa police officer caught a baby dropped from the balcony of a burning apartment building in east Tulsa.
On Monday night, an elderly woman died in a north Tulsa house fire, and a man died in another north Tulsa house fire on Sunday.
Four positions are assigned to the education unit. They include that of Huffy the Clown, who teaches children about fire safety. While the character was created by firefighter Tom Hufford outside the department, the position he holds is being eliminated, Miller said. The unit gives school presentations, distributes smoke detectors to neighborhoods after fatal fires and conducts other fire safety activities.
"Those are the folks that go out and educate our school children on 'stop, drop and roll' and fire safety. ... To do away with that is very concerning to us," Miller said.
Plans also call for elimination of two Fire Department units that supply extra equipment such as oxygen tanks and breathing equipment at fires, he said.
Miller said the union will fight the city's plan to reassign the positions, calling the moves a contractual issue.
"They do have a contractual right to lay people off, but all the things they are proposing to do away with ... are negotiable items."
Miller said the union has notified Mayor Dewey Bartlett and Fire Chief Ray Driskell that "those are negotiable items and they need to send us any proposals we have."
"We are willing to sit down and look at options," he said.
The Fire Department currently has about 650 employees, and the union's contract with the city expires June 30.
Miller said the city signed a memorandum of understanding with the police and fire unions in 1994 that their presidents can function full time in those positions. He said the union heads help to "build labor relationships" between public safety officers and city administrators.
He said the city's move to reassign him appears to be politically motivated. In a Wednesday World story, Miller said the city's malfunctioning fire dispatch system "is becoming a public safety concern."
"The administration was made aware that we were speaking out about the dispatch system at 1 o'clock, and the fire chief was told to implement the changes at 4 o'clock."
However, Miller said long-term political differences with Bartlett may be more to blame. "Obviously, we've been on different sides of issues with the mayor," he said.
Last year, the fire union endorsed former Mayor Kathy Taylor in her bid to reclaim the post, calling her "the best choice for Tulsa."
Bartlett did not respond to an invitation to meet with the union before the election.
"I am very proud of always putting the taxpayers first, and I understand why I am the only major candidate for mayor without support" from unions, Bartlett said in May.
Ziva Branstetter 918-581-8306
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