Fire union: Moline officials have 'blood on their hands'

Originally Posted Online: Oct. 19, 2011, 3:32 pm
Last Updated: Oct. 20, 2011, 9:33 am
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By Jonathan Turner, jturner@qconline.com

MOLINE -- Michael Lucchetti is one of 12 firefighter/paramedics likely to lose his job next July 1 and he doesn't know what he'll do.

The 25-year-old Augustana graduate has worked for the Moline Fire Department for just a year and was among more than 20 city firefighters to protest Moline's plan to privatize emergency medical services Wednesday at a press conference outside the Central Fire Station.

"It's very humbling to know they have your back," Mr. Lucchetti said of his fellow firefighters. "The brotherhood and sisterhood we have, with everybody involved, it's phenomenal."

The city council voted 5-3 Tuesday night to cut the 12 positions to help cover a projected budget deficit.

City administrator Lew Steinbrecher had recommended privatizing the EMS service, resulting in the elimination of 12 firefighters/paramedics (to be based on department seniority). If done by July 1, 2012, the city will save $151,945, he said.

What Moline has done "will jeopardize the lives of citizens and firefighters alike," said Brian Vyncke, president of the local union, International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 581.

"This blatant disregard for safety is the result of opposing a 1.7-cent property tax increase, which would have funded these positions for the entire year 2012," he said.

That tax hike would have cost the owner of a $100,000 home an extra $6 a year, Mr. Vyncke said, claiming city officials now have "blood on their hands.

"So, fellow Moline citizens, $6 is what the leaders of Moline think of your lives," Mr. Vyncke said. "In the eyes of the many foolish projects Moline chooses to fund, I find it very unsettling the leaders will jeopardize public safety when they vote to fund items that are frivolous and wasteful."

Mr. Vyncke said the quick decision was made without proper research of facts, and by people who don't understand how the fire department works.

"Why are we rushing this through? Why are you making a decision when you don't have the answers?" he asked.

As a result, private EMS providers will be used at "unknown staffing levels, from unknown locations, at an unknown cost to taxpayers, with many other questions remaining to be answered. The council was negligent in their duties to allow a vote to cut firefighters without knowing or researching all of the facts..."

"It's cutting our legs from under us," said firefighter/paramedic Eric Becker, who has worked for a private EMS company. "I don't want to bad-mouth any private EMS, but it's not the same level of care.

"It may take longer for them to respond," he said of a private company, which may transport patients to, and be based in, other cities.

If reduced by 12 positions, the average Moline shift will be cut from 17 to 13 on duty, for the entire city, Mr. Vyncke said. If the city doesn't help restore the cuts, he wants Congress to help hire more firefighters by approving $1 billion for the SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grant program.

"Congress needs to get to work and cast a vote for public safety and help much needed job growth," Mr. Vyncke said, noting that 15,000 firefighter and EMT jobs have been lost, targeted for cuts or left unfilled due to funding shortages from the economic downturn.

SAFER is part of a proposed $35 billion jobs bill the Senate will consider Friday, to help states prevent layoffs of teachers, police officers and firefighters.

The Moline cuts are especially ironic given that in 2010, Illinois led the nation in firefighter deaths -- nine out of 85 on-duty firefighter fatalities in the U.S., Mr. Vyncke said. "Not having enough emergency responders is a national problem, requiring a national solution."

"Public safety cuts are dangerous, and we applaud President Obama for recognizing the importance of getting firefighters and paramedics back to work," IAFF of Illinois President Pat Devaney said in a news release, noting that funding would come from a tax on those earning $1 million or more a year.

"Congress must choose between loopholes for millionaires or crucial funding for firefighters, cops and teachers," he said of the SAFER program.

Moline firefighters were surprised to see Fire Chief Ron Miller immediately resign after Tuesday's council meeting, but respect his decision, Mr. Vyncke said. The chief, a 30-year veteran, had the job just 21 months.

"His resignation came as a shock," Mr. Lucchetti said. "I believe he did that in the best interests of the department. I trust every move that was made and believe what he did was for a reason. Our leadership at the top has been phenomenal throughout this entire experience."

He agreed firefighting service will suffer if the cuts are made, but "the issue isn't dead. The true impact won't be known until we know for sure what's going to happen."

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