Ill. Firefighters Release Video to Thwart Staff Cuts

March 14, 2013
East St. Louis firefighters are facing significant staffing cuts in May after a federal grant expires. So, a member of the department crafted a video to expose their plight.

March 14--EAST ST. LOUIS -- Firefighters here have posted an Internet video detailing what they say is a risk that 22 of their force of 53 might be laid off when a federal grant runs out at the end of this month.

The nine-minute, 11-second video, posted on YouTube Monday, had racked up more than 26,000 hits by Wednesday -- about as many views as the city has residents. Brandon Walls, president of the firefighters union, said it was intended to make the community aware.

"I can't see how these decisions are being made with everybody's best interests," said Walls, 42, who has been with the department since 1997.

Mayor Alvin Parks said that the city was "absolutely planning to reapply" for the grant but that the chances of getting it a second time were probably 30 percent.

"We will exhaust every effort to retain the firefighters -- they are absolutely essential to the city's operation and to the community's safety," he said. "But it's a very, very, very competitive process. Second, we got it two years ago, and the federal government may want to spread the wealth around. When you consider what the federal government is going through, with the sequester, we understand this is not automatic by a long shot -- but we will certainly be competing."

Parks added that even if the grant wasn't renewed, he expected the number of layoffs would be from 10 to 15 firefighters. That's due to a slight tax increase that went into effect in January to pay for firefighters.

Parks said that the layoffs probably would go into effect about May 1 but if the city later got the grant, the firefighters would be rehired. Walls and Fire Chief Jason Blackmon said the city had until sometime in May to reapply for the grant.

Parks also said the city couldn't afford to shift additional money in its budget.

"The two biggest areas of the city's budget by far are in fire and police personnel," he said.

"We hope for the best but prepare for the worst," Parks said.

According to information on the firefighters' video, the department operates at minimum levels now, with just six personnel responding to most alarms. In 2012, there were 1,856 calls. About half, 950, were fires.

The union made a similar video in 2009, after city officials debated laying off 11 firefighters. It didn't help.

But those firefighters were brought back in 2011, and 12 were added, after the city secured the $3.3 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"That helped the city," Walls said Wednesday. "Obviously, they didn't prepare for the future."

The video opens inside a dilapidated firehouse, closed since 1988, with the camera passing an unused yellow firetruck, rusted Campbell's soup cans on a counter and a dusty uniform still in its locker.

The department once had more than 150 members. That was when the city population was about 80,000, Blackmon said. The city's population and economy have declined for a half-century, with budget cuts and attrition sapping the staff.

"With 53 firefighters, we have to do what we have to do," Blackmon said. "And we still are able to do our jobs with the manpower we have."

Walls said the union hoped public pressure would help keep the fire budget from being gutted.

"We're not looking for raises or anything of that nature," he said. "We're trying to save the men. We're functioning like we are now out of pure dedication.

"I don't know how to negotiate this. There's nothing to concede."

Copyright 2013 - St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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