WILMINGTON, DE (May 6, 2009) -- The national public safety hit list hit home this past week, when Wilmington, DE Mayor James Baker announced layoffs of firefighting and police personnel. How Baker tagged the fire department is somewhat fishy but a story worth sharing.
Just a few weeks ago, Local 1590, the Wilmington Fire Fighters Association and the city agreed on a new contract, after the fire department had been working without one for over 2 years. The members received slim raises, but there was comfort knowing that the city fire department would finally be working at authorized staffing for the first time in nearly 20 years.
In the meantime, Chief Willie Patrick, CFO and his administrative staff had labored diligently to cut nearly $800,000 from the department's 2010 budget at the Mayor’s request. They presented the plan to Wilmington City Council last week, who had questions and asked for clarifications, but suggested no changes.
The biggest money saver for the city would have been Patrick’s concept of “rolling bypasses”, which would close a single company for the day, if it were understaffed due to vacation or illness. Overtime personnel normally fill those positions, but since the mission was to drastically reduce overtime pay, bypass was fair resolution. It was a win-win-win situation for everyone – the citizens, city government and the firefighters, since staffing would remain the same and there would be no company closings.
Then, last week, Mayor Baker announced the layoffs, claiming that Local 1590 would not agree to freeze their newly authorized wage increase. His announcement came as a shock to the firefighting community, since he made no reference whatsoever to raise freezes just days before while the city and union were hammering out a settlement.
Incredibly, no one came to the firefighters’ defense, and the local newspaper, the News-Journal, did nothing to report on the impact of such layoffs to city residents. Well, since the News Journal didn’t feel the need to report the bad news, here it is.
I’m told that at least, 20 Wilmington firefighters will be fired– and the city's job hackers will be going back through the past three recruit classes to find enough firefighters to axe. Some of these brave men and women have invested 10 years on-the-job, and will soon lose their health benefits and payments into the pension system.
With 20 members gone, somewhere in Wilmington, a company will certainly be closed down. In the most logical scenario, the closure will likely be Rescue-1, which responds to every alarm in the city providing fire scene rescue, auto extrication, water rescue, high-angle rescue, technical rescue and hazmat mitigation. Rescue-1's closure will have immediate ramifications on emergency response and deny city residents the same level of protection that the smallest neighboring volunteer companies provide on a daily basis.
Historically speaking, when Wilmington shuts down a firehouse or closes a company, it never re-opens again. In the last generation alone, the city has lost four companies and two stations to cutbacks, none of which have ever come back online.
Expect 30 firefighters per shift
Unfortunately, Mr. Baker’s layoffs will do absolutely nothing to help fix the overtime problem, so Chief Patrick will still need to initiate the rolling bypass concept. There will be days when this city of 75,000 plus will be protected by as few as 3 engines and 2 ladders, or some combination thereof.
In order to fight a working fire, the WFD will be calling on neighboring volunteer companies more and more often to provide Rapid Intervention Teams, cover-up companies, even suppression units during large scale blazes. The volunteers are barely handling their own load, especially during the daytime hours, and are now be told to back-up their career colleagues with NO compensation whatsoever. The city receives pro-bono firefighting services by relying on an age old mutual aid agreement.
However, for those of you who recall layoffs and closings in Camden, NJ about 10 years ago, South Jersey volunteers and the City of Philadelphia FD were being called into Camden several times each week to handle an endless wave of arsons. But after a year, the volunteers got wise to Camden's ways and stopped responding, as did the City of Philadelphia -- and one could only watch as Camden burned, burned and burned some more.
Just a few weeks ago, Vice President Joe Biden emphasized that city, county and state fiscal woes “would not be borne on the backs of public safety personnel.” Evidently Joe’s friend, Mayor James Baker, and so many other public officials, didn’t tune into CNN for that speech.
"I find it difficult to comprehend that an elected official would endanger his constituents and end the careers of so many dedicated firefighter/EMT's based on retaliation." said Michelle Jones, a resident of the 40 Acres section of the city.
"The mayor is pointing the finger of blame at the firefighter's union,' she added, 'when in reality, it is his (Baker's) decision alone that will soon place the citizens of Wilmington at risk."
Update: On May 7, 2009, President Barack Obama fulfilled a campaign commitment by proposing a huge funding increase for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grants, which has been the IAFF's signature program. The extra funding is being made available to career departments in order to keep firefighters in firehouse, not the unemployment line. A portion of these funds could be directed to the Wilmington Fire Department, if someone would simply apply for the assistance.