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    Firefighters ask city for help

    Union members pack a City Commission meeting to seek better equipment and a larger staff.

    By JENNIFER FARRELL, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 19, 2002


    CLEARWATER -- In a show of force Thursday, firefighters dressed in red union T-shirts packed City Hall, standing behind their labor leader and applauding thunderously as he demanded better equipment and more staffing.

    Carrying a helmet and pointing to photographs of melted gear, union president John Lee suggested that outdated equipment had contributed to injuries suffered by five firefighters last month during the deadly blaze at Dolphin Cove condominiums that also killed two residents.

    "Did our firefighters have the best possible equipment to perform their duties ... Is this the best we can do?" Lee asked. "If we can't protect ourselves, how are we supposed to protect the public?"

    Lee told commissioners that the three firefighters hospitalized with severe burns were wearing old-style helmets. The jumpsuits they wore, he said, had reflective plastic strips that melted through the fabric, searing flesh in the intense heat, which climbed to 1,000 degrees.

    "If these are the best, then why did our firefighters suffer so much burns?" Lee asked. "These are questions that deserve immediate answers and actions because we continue to fight fires every day."

    The Clearwater Fire Fighters Association president also questioned Chief Rowland Herald's management of the department and chided the city for failing to hire more firefighters.

    "This is a dangerous gamble to the public and us," he said. "I beg you, please support and staff the critical services of this city."

    Lee's comments prompted a standing ovation from dozens of firefighters filling the back rows of City Commission chambers.

    But Mayor Brian Aungst was less encouraging.

    Aungst defended the current commission's record on supporting the Fire Department. He disputed one firefighter's criticism of Herald's comments that were published after the Dolphin Cove fire, saying they were taken out of context.

    "If you're going to go on a misinformation campaign, it's not going to work," Aungst said. "We will not negotiate a contract in a meeting on live television like this."

    Relations between the union and city administration have been strained recently. City officials have questioned the union's demand that firefighters have lawyers before cooperating with the Dolphin Cove fire investigation, and firefighters picketed the city-sponsored Independence Day celebration after pension negotiations broke down.

    Tensions have risen just as the city heads into contract negotiations with the two firefighters unions and the local Communication Workers of America bargaining unit.

    Stephen Sarnoff, head of the local CWA, criticized the city at Thursday's meeting for doing "too little, too late," during pension talks. He questioned a decision to do away with a city crew assigned to repair fire hydrants, referring to a hydrant that came up dry at the Dolphin Cove fire.

    Sarnoff presented the issues as a matter of trust: "If we can't trust each other, if we can't put our faith in each other, we will have serious consequences," he said.

    Commissioner Hoyt Hamilton, whose family employed Robert Kelly, one of the residents killed in the fire, expressed sadness for the victims and pledged to review firefighters' concerns.

    "All of the issues that were brought out tonight, we will work very hard as a commission to address those in as timely a fashion as we can," he said.

    Firefighters, meanwhile, focused on the heroism shown by their colleagues during the fire, which could easily have taken more victims.

    Two-year department veteran Brent Bronson brought his daughters, McKenzie, 5, and Madison, 4, to the lectern Thursday night as he addressed the commission.

    "I'd like for you to walk in our boots one day," he said. "Please help me come home to them. Give us the staffing that we need."

    In other business, commissioners:

    Voted unanimously to set next year's property tax rate at $5.75 per $1,000 taxable value.

    Agreed to continue negotiating on three options for parking at Clearwater Beach.

    Approved a three-year management agreement with the Clearwater Community Sailing Association Inc. for the Clearwater Community Sailing Center. The agreement includes two additional three-year terms, with an annual rent of $12,000 for the first year that will increase by 5 percent in subsequent terms, plus 20 percent of all income after taxes annually after the first year.

    Approved a five-year, $248,600 management agreement with the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce for the Beach Visitor Information Center. No more than $221,385 will be funded, with $27,215 coming from in-kind contributions.

    -- Jennifer Farrell can be reached at 445-4160 or farrell@sptimes.com.

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