Five part-time firefighters hired to address concerns

Photo by Chris Sykes
Irvington Fire Division Firemen’s Mutual Benevolent Association Local 14 President Alex Lima, right, serves coffee to Sally Oliver, a resident of 712 15th Ave., where East Ward Councilman Paul Inman’s monthly community meeting was on Monday, March 4. Lima is upset about recent scheduling changes in the IFD and the recent hiring of five part-time firefighters by Mayor Tony Vauss administration through the leadership of Public Safety Director Tracy Bowers.

IRVINGTON, NJ — Irvington has hired five part-time firefighters, who have been working in town since January and the Fireman’s Mutual Benevolent Association union, which represents the rank and file members of the IFD, is not happy about it. The union is also concerned that some of the Vauss administration’s recent personnel and scheduling policies go against established practices.

Statewide FMBA President Ed Donnelly said it appears Mayor Tony Vauss and Public Safety Director Tracy Bowers are attempting to redefine what it means to be a firefighter in New Jersey since, until this point, firefighters were either volunteer or full-time and never part-time employees. Donnelly said he believes this would set a dangerous precedent and endanger the lives of residents.

“I understand, with this part-time thing, they’re misleading these gentlemen,” FMBA Local 14 President Alex Lima, a veteran Irvington firefighter, said Tuesday, March 5. “The last class was told, if the union issues were resolved, then they would be put on full-time. Well, the union issues are not resolved.”

Donnelly confirmed this, adding he had been in negotiations with the Vauss administration about a new contract for the IFD FMBA members — whose current contract is due to expire in June 2020 — but 55 current firefighters voted not to accept the administration’s contract proposal Wednesday, Feb. 27.

The union countered, agreeing to accept the administration increasing the number of “steps” or salary increase thresholds required by full-time firefighters to reach maximum pay, according to their negotiated contract, in exchange for a return to their traditional 24-hour work schedule; a 2.5-percent salary increase in 2018-2019; and a 2-percent increase in 2020 and 2021. Vauss and Bowers rejected this deal.

“Negotiations between union and administration are over,” said Donnelly on Thursday, Feb. 28.

The current contract allows Vauss to change the work schedule, which he recently did by switching the firefighters from two, 24-hour days per week to a 10-hour shift one day and a 14-hour shift on another day, necessitating firefighters work four days in every seven-day workweek.

Donnelly said he believes the Vauss administration is setting a dangerous precedent by hiring part-time firefighters and expecting them to provide the same level of public safety and service as full-time firefighters.

“While keeping residents safe should be every mayor’s top priority, Mayor Tony Vauss has made it very clear that his politics are more important,” said Donnelly on Sunday, March 3. “By doing that, he is putting the community at risk, while also exposing the firefighters we represent to grave danger. That is why the NJ State FMBA is in Irvington, fighting this fight.”

Lima said the part-time firefighter status and full-time firefighter work schedule aren’t the only issues he has with the Vauss administration and he said this change in status and schedule has already had a negative impact on the quality of potential IFD recruits.

“This is not a 24-hour-a-week job, like these guys are doing, coming in two times a week now. My other issue is, it’s taken me three weeks to get any information on the benefits package that these part-time guys are getting,” Lima said. “To me, this is a disgrace. It’s an embarrassment to the men and women of the IFD, that come to work every day and put our lives on the line. You had eight candidates from the list of candidates that passed the fire exam test that they offered jobs to, and you only got one. People are turning this part-time job down. It’s a full-time job. I think this is just a way of them getting at the union for not going along with his furlough plan back in 2016.”

Vauss denied this. Although he declined to comment on the record about the part-time firefighters, he provided the Irvington Herald with a copy of a text he said he received from Donnelly on Wednesday, Feb. 27, wherein the state FMBA president agreed to accept adding 14 more steps to the full-time firefighter salary progression and allow the part-time firefighter to work in the department, in exchange for concessions regarding the overall firefighter work schedule.

“I’m presenting this deal on Wednesday night,” Donnelly allegedly said to Vauss in a text the mayor said he received prior to the FMBA union vote on Thursday, Feb. 28. “I’m not feeling this passes as is. Here’s what I need: I’ll give you the full year on part-time firefighter. Can you move on work schedule return on March 15. And the initial deal — 2018 and 2019, 2.5 percent, 2020 and 2021, 2 percent. Please!”

Donnelly admitted he had contacted Vauss to broker a deal between the administration and the IFD FMBA Local 14 union, but he said this was simply part of a good faith effort to resolve the ongoing labor issues in the IFD. He said an offer and counter offer is standard practice in union negotiations, but after Vauss rejected his compromise, it was clear to him that the administration was negotiating in good faith.

“The idea that he is going to try and ‘redefine the job’ of firefighters that have provided established and successful results for centuries is absolutely ludicrous,” said Donnelly on Sunday, March 3. “Firefighting in a city such as Irvington is not a part-time job. The men and women that answer the alarms every day, that run toward danger others are running from, are highly skilled and require constant training. They don’t just fight fires, respond to motor vehicle accidents and expose themselves to a wide variety of toxins as part of a 9-to-5 job.”

Bowers said he doesn’t understand the fuss about part-time firefighters, saying it was his idea to hire them.

“The position is not being redefined. They get the same academy training, same facilities and equipment, and the same in-service training, once they get here,” said Bowers on Monday, March 4. “We don’t separate the part-time firefighters from the full-time firefighters. They train together. They fight fires together. Civil service recognized part-time firefighters.”

Bowers said having part-time firefighters is a prudent fiscal move for Irvington, because its Police and Fire departments are always the two biggest items in the municipal budget due to salaries, benefits and pension plans. By hiring part-time firefighters, he said, the township can now hire two firefighters at $23,000 for the price of one full-time firefighter’s $46,000 starting salary and save money on health benefits, because they’re only providing partial benefits to the part-time firefighters themselves, not their families, and there are no pension plan payments to the state, because part-time firefighters are not eligible to participate in the state pension plan, designed only for full-time employees.

Bowers also said part-time firefighters can’t join the union so, technically speaking, Lima and Donnelly don’t have anything to do with them. In fact, he said Irvington is the first municipality in New Jersey to ever hire part-time firefighters, so the administration doesn’t have any established precedents and guidelines dictating its course of action.

“It probably has been done somewhere else before, I just don’t know about it,” said Bowers. “It’s similar to what we did with the senior and the kids cops, we’re just trying to find ways to be more effective and deliver better services and have more firefighters on staff. We’re talking about safety. Nobody’s been put in jeopardy as a result of us hiring these part-timers. Who cares more about public safety than the public safety director?”

Municipal Council President and North Ward Councilman David Lyons agreed with Bowers.

“I had discussions with the mayor and the public safety director about this months ago and I’m satisfied that both have done all that’s necessary to protect Irvington’s citizens, while also addressing fiscal responsibility,” said Lyons on Monday, March 4. “Rather than cutting Fire Department personnel, the administration has actually provided help to the department by hiring more firemen. I totally disagree with the assumption made by anyone that says that the mayor and director (are) putting the township in jeopardy.”

Lyons said the decision to hire part-time firefighters was fiscally prudent in a town that recently has dealt with multiple consecutive budget deficits.

“While we are cognizant of the Fire Department staff, we also owe a responsibility to our citizens to be fiscally responsible,” said Lyons on Monday, March 4. “While we have some issues, understand that the mayor, public safety director and council are always looking for ways to ensure that the Fire Department staff has the equipment necessary to function, while at the same time being diligent to our constituents.”

Donnelly disagreed with Lyons and Bowers, saying he believes Vauss is the only reason there are part-time firefighters working in the Irvington Fire Division today and why his FMBA Local 14 members are facing so many work-related issues, including bad schedules, low morale and inadequate equipment.

“Our members have tried negotiating with Mayor Vauss and his administration. He has chosen to retaliate when negotiations don’t go his way,” Donnelly said. “We will continue to take the actions necessary, to make sure that he knows we are not backing down from what is right, when it comes to public safety. I know I will not rest until every Irvington firefighter is protected and given the proper staffing and equipment they need, to perform their jobs as safely as possible, to keep residents and their homes safe. I believe that the community will support the men and women who continued to be the front line of defense from danger for so long.”

Bowers said he and the other members of the administration are looking out for the best interests of township residents, while Donnelly and Lima are creating issues as a bargaining tactic that have no basis in reality.

“Having part-time firefighters, it’s just options. We’ve increased our options. Who wouldn’t want to do that?” Bowers asked. “It’s a lot of argument, but no evidence that there is a problem. No lag in response time. No one being put in danger. Nobody died, nobody’s in no danger. Other than that, they got more people and we’re looking to hire more.”