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Published: Friday, 7/7/2006

Hillsdale union pushes to add a 4th firefighter

BY BENJAMIN ALEXANDER-BLOCH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

HILLSDALE, Mich. - Local 961 of the International Association of Fire Fighters is trying to put out a fire using grass-roots action.

Union members and community supporters are soliciting the 250 signatures needed to add a question on the November ballot asking voters to change the city charter to require a minimum of four full-time firefighters.

"We are the smallest municipality in the state when it comes to a full-time firefighter staff," said Mayor Michael Sessions, 18, who was thrust into the national spotlight in November when he became one of the nation's youngest mayors.

Mr. Sessions was the only member of the City Council to vote against the proposed 2006-07 bud-get. He voted against it, he said, because it did not include the fourth firefighter position.

"It isn't a matter of if we think the position should be filled or not filled; it's just a matter of finances," said Councilman Michael Parney. "And we do currently have a very good [Insurance Services Office] rating, which shows that the city is safe with only three [full-time firefighters]."

The ISO is a private company that provides the insurance industry with data on risk management services. Since starting to seek support over the July 4 weekend, petitioners already have nearly 250 signatures, according to Kevin Pauken, the deputy fire chief and the union president. They will collect as many signatures as possible before they submit their petition to the city on Aug. 1, he said.

According to the 2005-06 budget, and the proposed 2006-07 budget, the three full-time firefighters receive about $40,000 in overtime annually.

Mr. Pauken said the full-time staff usually works 24 hours on and 48 hours off.

But with only three full-time staff members, when somebody is on vacation or sick, the other two must work one shift on, one shift off.

"It's depressing to continue to ask our officers to work these hours because they don't get to be with their families," said Mr. Sessions. "And if you're a kid and you never get to see your parents ... it's hard growing up like that."

According to the union's contract with the city three years ago, it was agreed that if a fourth firefighter were hired, that firefighter would receive a starting annual salary of $30,000.

The city currently has $645, 276 in equity fund savings.

But City Manager Tim Vagle said it is imprudent to cut into savings if you don't have surplus revenue.

One of the alternatives Mr. Vagle has proffered is to use part-time employees to man the station when the full-time employees do not wish to work overtime.

Full-time firefighters staff the fire station, maintain the equipment, drive the trucks to the fires, and are the command officers on scene during fires. The part-time volunteer firefighters are called in to help at the scene, but they do not man the station.

Union officials and Mr. Sessions said taking a union position and filling it with part-time people would violate the union contract.

The city and the union are in contract negotiations.

Many of the 25 volunteer, part-time firefighters said they are unwilling to fill this full-time position.

"I have a full-time job. I cannot come down to the station on short notice and tell my boss that I have to leave work," said Bruce Sharp, a part-time firefighter who works at Eagle Picher Hillsdale Tool.

"My boss isn't going to appreciate that. He'd say, 'Fine, go ahead, but you won't have a job tomorrow.' "

After Mr. Sessions again pushed for a fourth full-time firefighter last month, council approved a resolution of support to apply for Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant funding for the equivalent of two part-time firefighter positions.

The grant is awarded through the Department of Homeland Security and encourages the hiring of firefighters by paying for part of newly hired firefighters' salaries over a five-year period.

Christopher Gutowski, the city's director of public safety, submitted the application for this grant a day before its June 30 deadline.

Contact Benjamin Alexander-Bloch

at babloch@theblade.com

or 419-724-6050.



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