Ind. fire union passes vote of no confidence in chief after COVID-19 outbreak

The East Chicago union has also accused the chief of "retaliation" against firefighters who criticized his handling of the outbreak


Lucas Gonzalez
The Times, Munster, Ind.

EAST CHICAGO, Ind. — Members the East Chicago Fire Department union has passed a vote of no confidence in Fire Chief Anthony Serna amid escalating tensions between the fire union and city officials.

East Chicago Professional Firefighters Local 365 announced its conclusion in a letter Monday after taking a vote that passed with an overwhelming majority, union representatives said.

East Chicago Professional Firefighters Local 365 has passed a vote of no confidence in Fire Chief Anthony Serna. The union has criticized Serna's handling of a COVID-19 outbreak at the department and says he retaliated against firefighters who blew the whistle by removing beds from the fire station.
East Chicago Professional Firefighters Local 365 has passed a vote of no confidence in Fire Chief Anthony Serna. The union has criticized Serna's handling of a COVID-19 outbreak at the department and says he retaliated against firefighters who blew the whistle by removing beds from the fire station. (Photo/East Chicago Professional Firefighters Local 365)

"Fire Chief Anthony Serna has failed in his duties to provide a safe, efficient, and cost-effective fire service in the City of East Chicago," the letter reads. "Fire Chief Anthony Serna's actions and statements have compromised the safety of the citizens of East Chicago and the firefighters sworn to protect them."

In an interview Tuesday with WJOB.1230, union representatives said they are concerned with a handful of key issues, including the department's unprecedented implementation of eight-hour rotating swing schedules, its COVID-19 policy and safety protocols, and its overall direction under Serna's leadership.

Recently, union President Dave Mata accused Serna of "retaliation" after beds were removed from an East Chicago Fire Department facility.

Mata alleged it was a move against union whistleblowers who sounded the alarms on an outbreak of COVID-19 cases at East Chicago Fire Station 4. The union accused the fire department administration of not quarantining the first Station 4 firefighter known to have been exposed by someone in his household, The Times reported.

To date, six firefighters have tested positive, the union said.

In response, Serna said he removed the beds as a precaution to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

"We had beds that are spaced less than 4 feet apart. Removing them was a way to keep everyone safe and keep the virus from spreading among firefighters. It removes the temptation to take off the mask and lay down near someone else and possibly spread the virus," Serna told The Times.

Serna also said that because firefighters now work eight-hour shifts, there is no need for beds as there was when there were longer overnight shifts.

The union also said the rotating eight-hour schedule has decreased the number of firefighters to each shift and negatively affected their cognitive abilities due to sleep deprivation, compromising firefighters' operational performance.

Serna also has restructured the fire department's resources by removing a frontline engine company and closed Station 5, which the union says is "placing an unnecessary and dangerous burden of the Fire Department to meet the needs of the community."

City Attorney Carla Morgan said the city's practices are in line with CDC guidelines, which allows firefighters with exposure to return to work once they get tested, given that they wear a mask at all times.

Full compliance with a city mandate to wear N-95 masks should have prevented transmission among fire union members, Morgan said.

Union representative Alan Abascal told WJOB that Mayor Anthony Copeland also bears responsibility and should be held accountable.

"I don't think these decisions came from (Serna) directly," Abascal told WJOB, adding Copeland "could change all this right now with the stroke of a pen, but he won't."

Mata added that the department's recent actions have put not just first responders, but their families and the public at large, at risk.

"This is a safety concern for everybody," Mata told WJOB. "We're not going to lower our standards ... we deserve better leadership."

Serna and Copeland were not immediately available for comment.

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(c)2020 The Times (Munster, Ind.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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