Guest Column: Fire union president: Staffing reduction creates dangerous working conditions

Editor’s note: The following letter is from Christopher Scrol, president of the Rockford Firefighters Union, IAFF Local 413. The letter was originally sent to union members and is presented here as a guest column.

By Christopher Scrol
President of the Rockford Firefighters Union, IAFF Local 413

Sisters and Brothers,

Wednesday, Jan. 7, Gov. Pat Quinn (D) approved House Bill 5485 and signed it into law. This bill had overwhelming bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, and passed with a veto-proof majority.

While our state lawmakers see the wisdom of this bill and understand its importance, the same cannot be said of our local leaders. Their public comments about this bill could best be described as misguided and, at worst, deceitful. They consistently massage the facts and distort the truth.

I was recently in a local business wearing a Rockford Firefighter shirt. The proprietor asked if I was a fireman and proceeded to tell me that Mayor Larry Morrissey (I) was in her shop the previous week. She added, “He doesn’t care much for you guys.” This is not an isolated incident. Many of you have shared similar experiences with me. The Mayor routinely disrespects the men and women who serve this community. His comments do you a disservice and reveal the true nature of his character and the quality of his leadership.

Unfortunately, he is not alone. Rockford Ald. Venita Hervey, D-5, traveled to Springfield last spring to lobby against H.B. 5485. There, she testified before the House Committee on Public Safety. While her intent was to prevent this bill’s passage, her testimony actually helped pass the bill. During closing comments, the committee chairman, State Rep. Rita Mayfield, D-Waukegan, chastised Ald. Hervey and made the following comments:

… [T]he City of Rockford was very disingenuous in their comments.

… [T]hey blame the firefighters for not providing a safe environment for their community. I think that directly reflects upon that administration. How can you blame the firefighters because you have an unsafe city?

They are not operating at bare minimum levels as they would like for you to believe.

I think they’re very disingenuous in some of the comments that they made. The fact that you couldn’t plow the streets and you said it was the firefighters’ fault. The fact that you had to turn off streetlights and it’s the firefighters’ fault. The fact that you’re drawing a salary. Is that the firefighters’ fault? I think there’s some real issues here. I really don’t understand how you could be so opposed to what we’re presenting here.

We’ve gone through so many different courts. You had the Appellate Court. You had the Circuit Court. The Attorney General’s Office wrote an amicus brief on this. It’s been before the Labor Board. Every single time they say that manning should be a condition. We’re talking about firefighters’ lives.

If you put two men on a truck or three men on a truck, and we’re not even talking about minimum manning, I want you to consider that … you put too many of their lives on the line. You’re saying they should not have a say … when they are risking their lives for you every single day. I think that is wrong.”

Mayor Morrissey has also made many false claims about this bill. He’s described a doomsday scenario where the passage of this bill would create crippling tax increases. The truth of the matter is that this bill would have no effect on the City of Rockford. Feb. 2, 2013, the Illinois Labor Relations Board issued a declaratory ruling (Case No. S-DR-13-005). It concluded that company strength was a mandatory subject of bargaining for the City of Rockford and IAFF Local 413. In layman’s terms, they stated that our Local and the City have mutually agreed to bargain over manning since 1979. Because our agreement predates the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act of 1986, we were grandfathered in and exempt from subsequent statutes.

Sadly, he’s even accused the lawmakers who supported this bill of maleficence. He alleges that they were unduly influenced by our political power. He believes that we have the financial wherewithal to corrupt the two-thirds of the State Senate that supported H.B. 5485. This assertion is laughable. If you believe this, you must also believe that Mayor Morrissey is the only elected official in the state who is capable of accepting campaign contributions but still able to maintain his honor and integrity.

Another one of the mayor’s canned responses is that arbitrators are biased “outsiders” when, in fact, they are required to be impartial and independent. He claims there will be a rash of arbitrator rulings imposing unsustainable and unjustifiable staffing increases. He says this despite the fact that there has not been a single case in the entire history of the State of Illinois where an arbitrator has issued an award that increased staffing levels. Ironically, during our last contract negotiations, the city was able to convince an arbitrator to issue an award that reduced our staffing levels.

The results of that decision have gone largely unnoticed by the general public and the media but have had serious consequences. We are now responding to a greater number of calls with fewer personnel. Firefighter injuries and exposures have increased by more than 20 percent. Fire trucks are frequently left unattended in the streets while crew members are forced to accompany ambulances to the hospital to assist with patient care. Ambulances are out of service and unable to respond to medical emergencies because crew members are needed on other apparatus.

Despite the fact that we are now exposed to greater workloads and more dangerous working conditions, you have maintained your level of professionalism and dedication. Whether exposing yourself to physical harm for hours on end while responding to a warehouse fire in below zero weather or dealing with the mental and emotional scars of having to pronounce the deaths in a quadruple homicide, you bravely serve this community and deserve its honor and respect. While it is true that Rockford has more than its fair share of problems, it is unfair and asinine to blame those problems on the men and women of the Rockford Fire Department. You deserve better. Thank you for all that you do.

From the Jan. 14-20, 2015, issue

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