“It’s open season on firefighters and paramedics everywhere,” Harold Schaitberger declared this morning at the FDIC 2010 opening ceremonies. This is what he’s heard from IAFF members from everywhere across the country, the general president of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) said. In the toughest economic times since the depression, our members are often the ones who are made to make up for a tough economy and public officials’ bad financial decisions. “We need to talk about how we respond to the challenges we face.”

Schaitberger said that not so long ago, the public trusted our profession and politicians supported us, especially following September 11, 2001, “That’s when people really understood how hard your jobs are and the sacrifices you are willing to make.”

But now we are on the defensive, Schaitberger asserted, having to defend our allegedly inflated wages, so-called “Cadillac” health care plans, and the supposedly generous pensions that others say are bankrupting our cities.

For public officials, it’s easier when struggling with diminishing revenues to blame us instead of owning up to taking tax holidays and other bad financial decisions. When the market crashed, they wouldn’t take any responsibility for the hole they helped create, he said.

Even in communities where there is no crisis, according to Schaitberger, mayors and city managers use this economically uncertain time as an excuse to cut staffing, companies, and stations; to reduce resources, go after our pensions, and force us to make concessions.

The fire service pays by having to do more with fewer personnel, fewer companies, and less funding. The public pays too, with less safety as a result of station closures and “brownouts.”

But, Schaitberger said, the IAFF is getting more aggressive in warning the public that “brownouts, RIFs, layoffs, and station closures not only make it harder for us to do our jobs, but it makes it less safe for them, their families, and it puts your communities at risk.”

He expressed concern about those within the fire service family who are letting us down. There is some incredible firefighting tools and equipment at FDIC. However, some decision makers will purchase the equipment but not allow the department enough personnel to safely deploy it, buying a million-dollar ladder with six seat locations and allow it to “roll out the bay doors with four empty seats!”

These decision makers, whether are elected officials or fire department leaders, “are doing the fire service a disservice; they willingly put our crews in jeopardy when those trucks are running understaffed, without at least putting up a fight.”

Nevertheless, Schaitberger said, he understands that generally command as well labor are both pursuing the same goals on behalf of our crews–a well-resourced, fully staffed, well-trained fire department.

On these core fundamental issues, he said, it shouldn’t come down to command against union, “I would prefer that we find a way to work together during these very trying times.”

However, Schaitberger said, “We are prepared to battle for the future of our members, for their rights, their jobs, and their safety. If our troops don’t have the staffing and support they need to do the job safely, they are nothing more than sacrificial lambs.”

The IAFF has been doing everything it can to address the increasing staffing shortfalls, pushing for more federal funding that’s directed to where it’s needed most. “We are doing everything we can to get firefighters back to work and fill those spots that have been lost over the last two years,” Schaitberger said, on the federal, state, and local level.

“We won’t let them play games with your lives! We need to stick together, fight together, or we will be doomed to failure and die together. The choice is all of ours,” he concluded.