Sunday, February 19, 2006

Publish Day - Ink Blog - Firefighter pay

I did the unthinkable in this column: I kinda said something not 100% supportive of our city's firefighters.

Those who know me know how I feel about emergency services workers. I'm not one of those who jumped on the bandwagon after September 11, 2001. I've been singing the praises of police, fire and ambulance workers since I first became a lifeguard when I was a teenager. They backstopped me and my team more times than I wish to remember.

It's easy for the rest of us to forget the personal sacrifices these people make so that we can lead safer lives. But when we need them, we know exactly how to reach them. They're heroes. Period.

So it was with a bit of fear that I wrote this. London's firefighters have been negotiating for a new contract over the last little bit. And the issue of retention pay stuck in my craw as a bit of a grab for cash. I tried to balance it by making it clear that my budgetary concerns had no connection to my fundamental respect of their goodness to and for society.

I hope they understand that when they read it. (And for the record, I didn't write the headline. Editors have final say on that component.)
Firefighters getting greedy
Published Saturday, February 18, 2006
The London Free Press

I don’t quite understand the logic behind London firefighters’ demands for retention pay.

They want the city to give them a bonus each year to keep them from leaving London to work elsewhere. The police officers’ union negotiated a similar deal last year, and now the firefighters want the same treatment.

I’m having difficulty with this since we don’t exactly have a huge shortage of firefighters. London has plenty of folks willing to join the ranks. We hardly need to pad their paychecks to keep them from jumping ship.

I have limitless respect and admiration for the firefighters in this and every city. They put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe. They deserve proper compensation.

But asking for retention pay simply because their colleagues in the police force got it smacks of sibling rivalry.

Out in the real world, salary is driven by simple supply and demand. Employers crack open the vault when they need to attract new talent. They close the purse strings when applicants are abundant.

Why should firefighters be treated any differently?

Your turn: Am I being too harsh on London's firefighters? What's a city to do when it's trying to save money and keep its unions happy?

Update - Feb. 22: The Free Press published this letter to the editor in response to this piece:

All firefighters want is parity with police

In a round-about way, Carmi Levy got it right in his Ink Blog, Firefighters getting greedy (Feb. 18) when he asked, "Why should firefighters be treated any differently?"

This is the question we have been asking ourselves over the last 26 months that we have been without a negotiated collective agreement.

Several years ago, and in subsequent freely negotiated agreements, city council has recognized wage parity between London firefighters and London police. Now, the mayor and the rest of council seem to have cast this by the wayside. Our question to council is, "What has changed?"

The duties and the dangers of firefighting have increased, as evidenced by the ever-expanding list of work-related cancer deaths.

We have never used the retention pay argument in any submission at the bargaining table, even though a comparable percentage of firefighters has left London for other firefighting opportunities. This is simply about maintaining historical wage parity with London police.

Striving for wage and benefit improvements has nothing to do with sibling rivalry. We highly respect our brothers and sisters in the other emergency services and applaud their advancements through the negotiating and arbitration process.

Jim Holmes


London Professional Fire Fighters Association


Electric Short said...

Being a union man myself,(ibew) we fight for and bargain for the good of the union or in this case the dept.

paving stones for the future firemen, that come after them.

They are fighting for thereself and the future.

my 2 cents

Lisa said...

That's a tough one, Carmi. Is there a real risk of the union ordering some kind of strike if the retention pay isn't given? How likely is it really, that firefighters would bail on London and go elsewhere if not given the pay? It becomes a case of who's going to call who's bluff, and what's reality is completely lost.

Good luck with this one! I think you were very fair and diplomatic. But you know from past experience that people will hear (or "read") what they want to hear.

The headline that your editors chose certainly doesn't help YOU any, does it? Hang tough!!! :-)

OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

Such an interesting dilemma...! Well, personally, I feel if the Police got this "retention" pay, the Firefighters should get it, too..These services are soooo essential to the city's survival at the human it possible that this was the only way for the Firefighters to get what they actually should have anyway? I'm asking cause I don't know. But what I do know from seeing first hand what the Fire People do to circumvent HUGE disasters that could and would effect thousands of homes and people--the incredible work that they do with great precision and dedication...One rarely if ever hears of Firemen 'on the take'...I honestly do not remember EVER hearing this--where as, The corruption that is rampant in so very very many police departments is so extremely well known that there is no need to detail these illegal activities here in these comments. Where as Fireman do not seem to fall into this same kind of behavior--perhaps because the temptations are not there--nevertheless--one does not hear of these things happening...
(Why do I go into all this? Well,) I truly feel the Fire People deserve more money if it is there to have.

I'm off my soap box now Carmi! Well, you asked..LOL!

Kat said...

After reading Lisa's comment, I am wondering the same thing. We had a transportation strike here in NYC back in December--but that wasn't really a life or death issue.

Even worse, though, are the Missouri firefighters who watched a man's house become engulfed in flames because he hadn't paid a membership fee for their services.

OldOldLady Of The Hills said...

Michele sent me right back again, Carmi...And I like visiting you,'s a Win Win situation! My opinion is still what it was a few minutes ago...but I didn't say that I think the Editors headline shows exactly where THEY are coming from...!

colleen said...

Ahhh another example of the headline thing, but in this case it's not as sensationalized as the one we were talking about at my place.

As a journalist, it's hard not to be controversial. You have to tell it like you see it.

chelle said...

hmm, very thought provoking issue. I agree that Firefighters & the police are essential to our society. It is a very difficult job to do, it takes you away from your family and puts you in danger.
Retention is a big issue! And yes there may be others that are willing to take the veterans place, however having an experienced team is important too! Turn over can be a dangerous thing in such professions!

Canadian Mark said...

I think you called it "as it is", it were. Where Unions might have been a good thing "back in the day"...there's a lot that comes from them today seems just a little far fetched. We live in a vicious and cynical society. Corruption is everywhere. I couldn't think of a better way to say what you did...and then to blog an entry in your defense...that was also well put.

atpanda said...

Ahhhh, interesting that I came by (from Michele's) today. You know I'm a FF wife. I guess I don't have that much of an opinion on that one because I don't know the whole story with those guys. But while I do agree with you that there are guys just waiting to sign up for departments, it gives the departments the leverage to treat their guys terribly sometimes. The firefighters who are in it to help people, to do good for the public sometimes fall victim to departments who don't want to compensate them fairly BECAUSE the departments know they are replaceable. My husband makes $9.60 an hour to run into burning buildings. That is less than an elementary school teacher makes, and not much more than minimum wage. Just a thought...

DeAnn said...

I don't think you're being too hard on them. Unions can be irksome. I understand why the exist, but I feel like there's really no need anymore.

Did I just say that?

kenju said...

I think you are right, Carmi. It seems that "signing bonuses" (similar to retention pay) have invaded the ordinary world - as well as that of pro sports. It is the same for lawyers, and who knows what other professions. I think we need to nip it in the bud somewhere, before it gets out of hand as it has in sports.

Michele sent me.

Killiredâ„¢ said...

interesting post carmi... what response did you get there from this column?
the heading is kinda mean, but i guess those type of headings generate interest in reading the article.
being that my hubby is police and my best friends hubby is fire, i can understand why they are asking this... and on the other hand i can see your point of view and you are asking a legitimate question as someone from the outside of those 2 fields. however i think that comparing firefighters and police to the greedy sports world and greedy attorney's is just WRONG. not even in the same boat... fire and police should be paid what the sports people make.. as should teachers... but that's a whole different post... but anyway... fire and police are held to a higher standard and it's not as easy living that life as one might think. you hope and pray your loved one makes it home each day, period. pay them double... they put their life on the line for other people. would you be willing to do that? would sports stars be willing to do that? i doubt it, cause I know I wouldn't even do it! But I am married to someone who does and I admire him for that and hope and pray he makes good decisions every day in order to make it home safely.
good post carmi... i bet it generates a lot more comments!

Killired said...

oh and michele sent me... forgot to say that! :)

Star said...

It's hard to say from way over here. Like you point out, supply and demand does give one side of the bargaining table the edge. If it was worded differently would you still find it objectionable? What if it were called a signing bonus like in the sports world?

Jeff said...

Carmi ˆ I used to volunteer in my home town as a teenager. My home town has a population of 32, 000 or so. Even though all the towns firefighters were not compensated their was some what of a shortage but we always felt that as our town grew and demand of our time heightened that the town should consider a payed dept. Especially since it is one of the wealthiest towns within the wealthiest state on the east coast. One thing that makes me think that firefighters should be compensated is that despite the supply and demand theory. Their existence saves corporations and businesses millions a year in insurance premiums. A businesses or residences proximity of a fire house makes a big difference in premiums. As a result Insurance companies compensate and support fire protection cost making sure that equipment is up to date and personal is well trained so that their liabilities are lowered. Its hard to say if government uses that money correctly.
Governments in the US local or national are not the sole supporters of emergency services. The bottom line is that It may seem like the firefighters are looking for a hand out but when it comes down to it the world cant live with out them. Just as many of us cant live without doctors. The job may seem blue collar and easily replaceable but their professionalism and risk far exceeds a highly paid corporate professionals and many other professions.

Their dedication is undeniable, wether London decides to pay more or not these men and women will not hesitate to save a life while risking theirs. If thats what others see as greedy, this world has much bigger problems and we are less compassionate then we think we are. I say give them just about any thing they want. The effects are mostly positive. Its not supply and demand its Value (life) vs. Cost ( ....!!!)

Jane said...

Interesting dilemma, you certainly don't want good firefighters to leave because they don't make enough money. They are certainly doing a very difficult and dangerous job. I think they should be paid well.
I noticed you are from London, Ontario. My family and I visited there many years ago and really enjoyed it. It was the cleanest city we had ever seen. It was lovely.
I was visiting Yellowroses Garden when I found your blog. I have enjoyed my visit.

abcd said...

Great writing-I don't know the
answer, but you certainly made
valid points.

Speaking of writing-pardon mine!
I am a graphic design artist. I can
color, and draw lines. But when I
type posts, well that's a different
story. Don't kick me out for any
error's OK?

A huge hug, a big thanks, and
a big WE LOVE YOU-thanks for
posting on Deb's site. She has
an ugly disease, a hard road,
and support is something we can do.

When our sister was sick the
"common-taters" were a huge help.
Now we think she is rallying the
troops in Hershey PA which is
where we think her soul went!

Sarah was the greatest, and the
Deb mission is all part of honoring
our sister's life.

Thanks a million.


vanx said...

Tough one. Brings to mind the problems with unions in the public education system--they don't exactly ensure that the best teachers are rewarded for their excellence. Also, as a New York-centric New Jersey resident, it brings to mind the transit union going on strike right before Christmas over similar issues. I think you're right, and I tend to be pro-union. Public opinion and support is something public service unions need to take seriously.