INDIAN RIVER COUNTY — Senior County staffers will meet with representatives of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2201 at 10 a.m. Tuesday in Room B-1501 of the County Administration Building. Though the fate of firefighters’ raises is still up in the air, IAFF President Wayne Schasane and the County staff opened the door for this meeting after Schasane addressed the Board of County Commissioners on July 22 during an improptu sit-down while the commission meeting was still going on across the hall. Depending on how the talks progress, a few jobs could potentially be saved if staffing and equipment issues can be worked out. Schasane voiced concerns he and his 220 members have about affects of proposed cuts to the Fire Rescue budget and the reallocation of some of the Fire Prevention staff. He also wanted to clear the air about the tenor of labor negotiations, because County Administrator Joe Baird had characterized the firefighters as uncooperative. “We took a 17 percent (budget) cut last year and now we’re (being asked to take) a 14 percent cut this year,” Schasane said after the meeting. “We have 11 stations and 11 engines, so that’s no spare engines and we have ambulances out there that have more than 100,000 miles on them. Since 1984, there have been 5 or 6 schools built to keep up with the growing population but no new fire stations added (in the South County).” In addition to asking firefighters to waive their contractual right to annual increases called “step” raises, which would reduce the $14 million Emergency Services District reserves by $273,000, the 2009-2010 budget proposes reallocating and demoting three senior Fire Prevention staff into fire-fighting positions at the new Station 12, the first new station in the South County 25 years, which is scheduled to open in Gifford in October. A fourth position in Fire Prevention, held by a non-union employee, has been eliminated and a the duties of a person in a director-level position have been expanded — with no increase in pay — to include emergency operations training duties so the position can be funded by a state grant.It is unclear how this 50 percent reduction in personnel to conduct fire inspections, fire safety education and public outreach will affect services, programs in schools such as the Firehouse display and “stop, drop and roll” education. Fire department presence at community events may be on the chopping block.
Though Schasane and his members are not happy about the possibility of losing those public education programs, what worries them more is reducing the the department’s capacity to inspect buildings with four fewer people in Fire Prevention. The County will still inspect Priority 1 buildings such as schools and hospitals annually and Priority 2 structures such as the County Administration Building as required. But Priority 3 inspections of commercial buildings and multi-family residences, will not get inspected on a regular basis, though Emergency Services Director John King admits these structures pose the greatest danger of death if there is a fire. In the event of a fire, first responders arrive on the scene in aging vehicles and there is often a scramble to beg and borrow ambulances from other stations and then quickly put them back into service after patients have been transported to the emergency room. “The status of the system is stretched to the max,” said firefighter John O’Connor in meetings with staff after the Commission meeting.O’Connor raised several examples when fire department units were all busy responding to calls and none were available to be dispatched.The new Station 12 in Gifford will have no ambulance. This is a savings of nearly $700,000 to the county as it costs $900,000 to equip and staff a station with an engine only and $1.6 million to equip and staff a station with an engine and an ambulance. To make up for this, the new engine in Gifford will have advanced life-saving capability, but will not be able to transport injured to the hospital.Commissioners seemed to realize that firefighters are more than willing to sit down with County staff and come up with a workable solution.”I just want to make sure that anyone in the audience understands that the fire department is cutting as much and as deeply as every other department in the County,” said Commissioner Bob Solari.At the request of the County, firefighters have come forth with several suggestions for cutting costs within the department to make room in the budget for the staffing and items they feel are crucial to public safety. They suggesting making cuts to administrative costs and the uniform budget. “They want to spend $220,000 on uniforms because they don’t want us to look ratty when we get to a call,” Schasane said after the meeting. “I don’t care what we’re wearing, I just want to be able to get to a call.”Union representatives stepped out of the meeting after Schasane’s presentation and met directly with Assistant County Administrator Mike Zito and the county Human Resources Director across the hall from Commission chambers. Zito said the idea of negotiating with the union over non-salary and non-contract items in the budget was a bit unorthodox, but that he would “take it upstairs” to get guidance from County Administrator Joe Baird on how to proceed before staffers meet with Schasane and his negotiating team next week.”That type of direction would make the negotiations much more productive,” Zito said.Schasane will make another presentation to Commissioners during Thursday’s budget workshop regarding the staffing, vehicle and equipment needs. He made the point that the firefighters want to be treated fairly and would like Commissioners to keep in mind that the items in their budget –whether personnel or vehicles — help save lives.