Firefighter shortage violates city code, councilman says

By , The News Journal


WILMINGTON, DELAWARE – The city of Wilmington broke its own law by letting firefighting staff fall below the minimum required by city code, a city councilman says.

Councilman Bob Williams will introduce a resolution on Monday telling the city to immediately hire 23 firefighters to bring staffing up to the authorized strength, 172.

According to the city code, the fire chief is supposed to draft a resolution requesting a fire academy class when staffing falls below 95 percent of the minimum number. In this case, that was at 163. The Fire Department now has 149 firefighters, Williams said.

“You don’t just pick what laws you abide by,” he said. “We set standards. We don’t circumvent the standards.”

The resolution comes at a time when Mayor Mike Purzycki has proposed the elimination of 16 firefighters. The Fire Department is now hiring just a few firefighters under the assumption that those 16 positions will be eliminated. With only seven vacancies after the anticipated cuts, the department is one person short of the requirement to initiate a class at the Delaware State Fire School, through which individuals with no training could learn the trade over four months. Instead, the city is hiring firefighters that already have certifications.

Council members including Vash Turner, Samuel L. Guy and Williams expressed frustration at the Fire Department’s budget hearing last month and said that the city should work with the 23 current vacancies and start a fire school class instead of assuming the budget cuts will pass.

“This should trigger a full blown academy,” Williams said of his resolution. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Turner, Guy and Williams argued that hiring from a pool of certified firefighters robs Wilmington youth of a career opportunity.

“(Chief Michael Donohue) was an 18-year-old kid who took a job, and look where he is now,” Williams said. “There are other kids in the city that would love the opportunity.”

Williams, a former volunteer firefighter, said the mayor should comply with the city code and hire 23 firefighters immediately, preferably through a fire school. After the budget vote on May 18, the mayor could make his cuts, Williams said.

“If the mayor wants to be the bad guy and lay people off, that’s on him.”

The resolution will not necessarily force the mayor to do anything.

“Our administration inherited the current fire department staffing issues and has worked diligently to manage these matters,” John Rago, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff for policy and communications, said in a statement. “At the moment, any discussion of the need for a complete fire academy is a moot point because the hiring process for new firefighters has already begun.”

The city is advertising for applicants over 18 who have certain firefighting and emergency medical technician training for a starting salary of $37,312.99.

The Mayor’s Office has said the authorized strength after proposed cuts, 156 fire personnel, is enough to keep the city safe. The cuts represent the elimination of an engine company and could require the use of rolling bypass, the unpopular practice of closing engines during staffing shortages. To avoid this, Purzycki wants to return to a work shift used years ago that he said would allow all engines to be available at all times. The firefighters’ union has expressed opposition to the change. The parties are due for a contract negotiation.

“The eventual authorized staffing level of the fire department will be known in a few weeks when the current FY 2018 budget discussions with City Council are concluded,” Rago said. “In the meantime, the mayor and fire chief are taking steps to maintain adequate departmental staffing levels.”

Contact Christina Jedra at [email protected], (302) 324-2837 or on Twitter @ChristinaJedra.