In what some are calling a “sickout,” a group of firefighters in University City appear to have deliberately closed down a firehouse last month. You can read about the incident here and here, and the mayor’s statement on the incident is published here. While it appears that University City residents were not put in significant danger by this incident (University City residents were still served by another firehouse and the mutual aid arrangement with nearby fire departments), the unauthorized shuttering of a firehouse is a serious public policy issue that raises questions about safety and government waste.
If a reduced level of service caused by the closed firehouse did not pose a threat to public safety, then keeping the firehouse fully operational might not be necessary. With a starting salary including benefits of $80,000 per firefighter, keeping an un-needed firehouse fully staffed is probably not the best use of public resources.
However, if the closed firehouse did threaten public safety—even minimally—an unauthorized work stoppage is inexcusable. The University City firefighters already have a labor agreement in place. Withholding their service in a way that puts the public at risk shows that they cannot be trusted to honor their agreements.
In this case, University City would be best served by decreasing its reliance on problematic fire department personnel. There are several changes University City could make to become less dependent on staff, including contracting out for emergency services, increasing its reliance on mutual aid, and exploring volunteer fire protection as a supplement to professional fire protection services. Privatized EMS, mutual aid, and volunteer firefighters are all widely used in Missouri, can save taxpayers money, and, if fire department personnel cannot be relied on to honor their contract, shifting to these alternatives will increase public safety.
Regardless of whether the work stoppage is a serious threat to public safety or a mere bargaining maneuver, last month’s closed firehouse indicates that it’s time to reform practices in the University City Fire Department.