It doesn’t pay for firefighters to sleep

by Jim Longworth

I was watching an episode of “Rescue Me” the other night in which Dennis Leary was reminded of the fireman’s prayer: “I pray that I may live each day as though it were my last. I pray that I may live my life as though it were everlasting”

However, given recent trends in budget slashing nationwide, that prayer should have one more verse: “I pray that I get paid for each day as though it were my last”.

Yes, it’s sad, but some Americans have short memories. Six years ago we were all awash with patriotism, and every other person on the street was wearing a FDNY cap in commemoration of the brave firefighters who died trying to rescue people from the Twin Towers. Suddenly, we had gained a new appreciation for the men and women who charge into wildfires, house fires and chemical fires on our behalf.

Our nation’s 1,136,650 firefighters became instant cult heroes after 9-11, and we revered them for the risks they were willing to take to keep us safe.

Last year approximately 100 firefighters were killed in action, and while the actual number is lower than in previous years, there has been an increase in the number of fatalities per 100,000 incidents, putting us back to 1980s levels. In addition, tens of thousands of blaze-busters are injured each year. Clearly, fighting fires is dangerous work, and that’s why most of us don’t want to do it.

But now, six years after the World Trade Center tragedy, a number of municipal bean counters are attempting to balance their budgets on the backs of firefighters. Well, thanks for the memories.

Case in point: Kernersville Town Manager Marvin Davis, who decided to cut back on overtime pay for firefighters. Davis figured that firefighters who sleep at the station shouldn’t be paid overtime for being horizontal. Specifically, the new policy deducts eight hours of sleep time from each 24-hour shift the firefighters work. Let’s sleep on that policy for a moment, and move on to explore other similar proposals which are making fireman burning mad.

In Chesterfield, Va. firefighters who take sick days must have those days deducted from their overtime. By the way, this is not the case with Chesterfield police.

In New York City, firefighters just won a new contract and a 17-percent raise over the next 50 months. But the catch is, they had to agree to work an additional 15-hour tour in order to get the raise which, in effect, is not a raise.

And, in Gilroy, Califf., firefighters earn comparable pay with police, but they must work a 56-hour week, whereas police officers only work 40 hours.

Pardon my French, but what the hell is happening? Have these government officials forgotten what firefighters do for us?

Fortunately, some localities have resisted the urge to appease angry taxpayers by pinching pennies in the fire departments. Chief John Gist of Winston-Salem, for example, always budgets for sleep time and overtime pay every year.

I wonder what town officials like Mr. Davis would do if his house caught fire late one night, but there was no one to respond rapidly because all of the firefighters were asleep at home, and off the clock. The fact is, we’re not paying firefighters to sleep; we’re paying them to be on alert, which means it is actually productive for them to sleep on shift while waiting to respond to an emergency. I for one sleep better at night knowing that there are firefighters resting up at the station house, just a few feet away from the hook and ladder.

Thanks to public outcry, I am happy to report that as this column was headed to press, Kernersville officials have reversed this new, short-sighted policy.

Of course, the ill-fated policy should have never seen the light of day.

Firefighters train hard and work hard, and, unlike the rest of us civilians who go to our jobs without fear of dying, firefighters know that every day on the clock might be their last above ground. Paying them overtime for catching much needed catnaps is a small price to pay for having a professional, highly motivated team keeping watch over our person and property.

The message Kernersville and other cities have been sending to firefighters is that when disaster strikes we’re pretty quick to pray, but afterward, we’re pretty slow to pay. We owe a great debt to those who protect and serve. It’s time to pay what we owe.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today, which can be seen Friday mornings at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7), and Sunday nights at 10 p.m. on WMYV 48 (cable channel 15).