Memphis firefighters call in sick to protest cuts

The number of firefighters out sick jumped to 65; the department later instituted a brownout of four ladder trucks around the city

The Commercial Appeal

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — As a rash of firefighters calling in sick sparked fears that the Memphis Fire Department was joining the police in their work stoppage, city leaders quietly met with labor representatives Wednesday afternoon to discuss the growing crisis.

In a 1 p.m. gathering at the Central Library, city Chief Administrative Officer George Little, Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong, MFD Director Alvin Benson and City Council member Myron Lowery talked with Thomas Malone, head of the firefighters union, and Mike Williams, head of the police union.

“The bottom line is that there’s no stalemate on either side because we’re continuing to talk,” Lowery said. “The lines of communication are open. We put a lot of things on the table. And several suggestions were made.”

The meeting came in response to what has been dubbed the Blue Flu, as nearly a quarter of the police department has called in sick to protest budget cuts that eliminated health-care subsidies for most retirees while raising premiums 24 percent for both current and former employees.

The number of firefighters out sick jumped to 65, with 40 calling in Wednesday added to the 25 who were already out. That represents about 4.3 percent of the department’s 1,501 firefighters. Until Wednesday, the average number of firefighters out sick this month was about 11 per day, Benson said.

Because of the missing firefighters, the department instituted a “brownout” of four ladder trucks spread around the city Wednesday. That dropped the number of available ladder trucks from to 16 from 20. A brownout essentially means that equipment is shut down for the day because there aren’t enough firefighters on duty to man it.

But while those numbers increased, the number of Memphis police officers claiming to be too sick to work dipped to 520 from a high of 557 on Tuesday. Still, that represents 23.4 percent of the 2,218-member force.

No proposals were floated at Wednesday’s meeting and no future sessions were set, but Malone still called it productive.

“What we’re trying to do is see if we’ve got some common ground we can find. We kinda aired out our thoughts and they aired out their thoughts.,” Malone said. “Chief Little is going to go back to the administration and see if there’s something we can do to move forward.”

Added Benson: “I think (the meeting) demonstrated the openness of the city leadership to engaging in conversation, to entertain ideas that may not have been put on the table before and discussed.”

In an afternoon news conference, Benson also said he understood why his firefighters were upset.

“I understand how the firefighters feel about this, I really do,” he said. “I wish there could’ve been a different decision. There’s a lot of frustration, a lot of anger, a lot of confusion.”

Benson also expressed concern that his department could be swept up in the protest. If more firefighters called in sick, he warned, public safety could be at risk.

“It’s not something to be alarmed about, but it does cause concern,” he said. “If we don’t have an adequate number of people to cover a shift, we’re looking at a possible compromise in our response times. Fewer trucks, slower response.”

If more firefighters call in, Benson said the department had several options, including paying overtime, more brownouts and even calling for help from neighboring departments.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to make sure that the trucks respond, the ambulances respond and public safety is not compromised.”

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