Inside a Budget Fight: Initial Plans

By Scott Joerger

What is the best way to stop a proposed budget cut to an engine company? Will a strong message from the public to the mayor and city council saying that this service is to too important to cut work? We began our campaign here. We worked with residents and business owners to show how this engine company improves the quality of life and enhances the business climate by providing rapid response for fire protection and emergency medical services. We wanted to show ownership, that we were part of this neighborhood and community for more than100 years and that we were their fire engine.

We knew it would be difficult. This is a tough, economically depressed area that sometimes struggles with crime. Many residents struggle to get by and do not have the time, will, and energy to get involved. Many need assistance but do not know how to ask for it. We had to get out into the neighborhood and let these people know what was happening. The first-in district of our engine company is not a big one, but it is very busy because of the neighborhood. Closing this engine will have an adverse effect on the residents and businesses. The first priority was to go door to door to every business and residence in our first-in district with a flyer detailing the cuts, highlighting the positive impact we provide, and showing the date of the mayor’s neighborhood meeting where he wanted input from them.

With cell phones and texting, it was easy to reach the lieutenants and some of the firefighters from the firehouse to ask for input and help. We met informally the first day after we learned of the proposed cuts, which turned out to be a mistake. A lot of help was needed. This should have been a formal meeting so that all our members would know about the initial plan and would be a part of it. I also called our local union office to let the union know what was planned and to ask for some advice and help. I left a message on voice mail and asked for a callback. The union was probably busy working on things as well: I never received a call, so I went on without the union. The plan was to start the next morning and first hit the main streets, where most of the stores and businesses are, with a large flyer printed on yellow paper. I had 500 flyers made up for the first day.

At our first meeting, company members felt misled and dumbfounded by the city because this was news no one saw coming, but they were ready to help. It was important to be positive and not appear to be disgruntled. We developed a few guidelines for this plan that would not violate a city employee conduct code. First, we would not wear clothing such as T-shirts or jackets issued as part of our uniform. Second, we would not represent ourselves as the fire department; instead, we would introduce ourselves as members “from the firefighters’ association.” Third, we would just give quick information about the budget events and would remain positive and nonconfrontational; this was not the time to talk politics or argue over the budget.

We ended the first meeting agreeing to start first thing the next morning. One of the newer members said he could not be present. The fire chief had set up a meeting with 57 of the newest firefighters to discuss the layoff process that morning, and he would have to attend that meeting. I was surprised by this because this member had almost five years on the job, and we typically have at least 20 or more retirements a year. I quickly remembered that before this latest reduction announcement we were already in a four-year reduction-through-attrition plan and, therefore, even firefighters with almost five years on the job were affected.

The next morning about 20 off-duty firefighters met at the firehouse. Many were from the company, but some were from other companies. We divided up the flyers, split into groups of two, assigned an area to cover, reviewed guidelines, and hit the streets. The first place I hit was the convenience store next to the firehouse. I did not exactly have a good relationship with the owner and the employees. Every year we deal with fire safety violations on inspections, and mysteriously no one working there at the time can understand English to follow through on corrections. I thought my visit was going to be a waste of time. I was wrong. The owner met with me and told me he would do anything to assist. He felt that street crime would significantly increase if we left the corner. He wanted to post the yellow sign and said that he would put up even larger signs if we had them. I thanked him and told him that we would get some. I then went to the smoke shop across the street and had the same offer to post a larger sign. We had three 2- ×12-foot banner signs made at a nearby sign shop. This way we could cover the buildings around the firehouse with the words “DO NOT CLOSE OUR FIREHOUSE” and include the date of the neighborhood meeting. The signs were printed and up by the next day.

That first morning of hitting the streets, most of the off-duty members finished their areas in a few hours. Sometime later that morning, I was informed that our union leaders had told all firefighters who were at the layoff meeting with the fire chief to go to our firehouse after the meeting to help hand out flyers. I wish they would have told me this. We did not have any flyers left, and I was willing to bet that the union did not have any as well. At noon, these firefighters began to show up. Their faces said it all. Most were bewildered and worried. Many had a new home and a young family. Some would go off to talk privately on their cell phone to a wife and try to explain what they had just been told. Seeing this made me realize how important it was to get the word out to the neighborhood about what a valuable asset this engine company was and to do what I could to stand by a brother or sister firefighter who had just been told that a pink slip might be coming.

With the help of one of the lieutenants, we were able to print another 500 flyers. A union leader informed us that the union would reimburse our expenses if they were within reason. This was good news; within an hour, we hit the streets again.

One other thing surprised me, however—fewer than 20 of the firefighters likely to be laid off showed up to help. Some were working, but at least 30 never showed up once to help out. I know that our union president met with them after the meeting and asked them to come to the firehouse to help hand out flyers. Over the next five days, I would see fewer and fewer coming to help. Only a couple of those 57 who had a strong possibility of being laid off continued to show up.

The “Inside a Budget Fight” series will be continued next month on www.fireengineering.com. Read Part 1 HERE.

SCOTT JOERGER is a 28-year veteran of the fire service and a former volunteer chief of the Pittsford Fire Department. He has worked as a wildland firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service in Oregon. He has an associate degree in fire protection and a bachelor’s degree in management.

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