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Firefighters deserve better from Menino administration

When bargaining began between the city of Boston and its firefighters over a year and a half ago, the union made it very clear that the Boston Fire Department is in desperate need of change, and that the union was committed to working with the administration on changes that would improve the delivery of emergency services in our city.

Boston firefighters are keenly aware of the realities of terrorism that we face in a post-9/11 world. We realize that the department must continually evolve to respond effectively to any incident - from fires and other traditional responsibilities to the realistic threat of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, or explosive events. Our lives, as well as those of the citizens of Boston, depend on our ability to respond to these threats.

Boston firefighters have good reason to be progressive and the city appeared to embrace our willingness to bring change to the department and improve the standard of safety that the citizens of Boston deserve.

Local 718 negotiated in good faith over the next several months to address many complex and important issues at the bargaining table. The issues dealt with in these talks have the potential to save the city significant dollars now expended on overtime. Failed management policies, instituted by the city in past negotiations, would be reversed and initiatives of the new fire commissioner were embraced in the spirit of cooperation by the union.

Boston Firefighters Local 718 was willing to concede on every proposed city policy change in order to provide Boston with the highest level of protection possible. In exchange, Local 718 was seeking a modest increase in the total contract package above other unions that did not have such extensive management reform in order to address vital safety concerns needlessly jeopardizing the lives of firefighters and the public alike. These safety issues include such matters as the lack of a dedicated hazardous materials company to respond to the more than 5,000 labs in this city as well as to the most dangerous lab in the world, the Level 4 Bio-Lab located in the heart of our city. In addition, the union proposed more comprehensive rescue technician training to bring us up to industry standards. We also made a proposal to address what is killing Boston firefighters in alarming numbers: cancer and heart attacks.

Boston firefighters are being diagnosed with job-related cancer every two weeks and suffering a job- related cardiac event every week. Well over 60 Boston firefighters have died from job-related cancer or heart attacks under the Menino administration. In the month of January alone we buried three of our brothers from job-related illness or injury. The International Association of Firefighters has studied firefighter wellness and fitness for over 30 years and has shown conclusively that for every dollar a municipality invests in firefighter wellness and fitness, it will save three dollars. Mayor Menino's review panel reported that 86 percent of major metropolitan fire departments have a wellness/fitness program. Local 718 has been fighting for a comprehensive program since 1999 but city hall just doesn't seem to care.

It appears, however, that our willingness to cooperate on management reform issues was seen by the Menino administration as a sign of weakness. After the city's management issues were addressed, and time came in bargaining to address costly issues like firefighter safety, the city declared an impasse and filed for arbitration on their issues. This strategy exemplifies the Menino administration's lack of respect for the collective bargaining process to which Boston firefighters have grown accustomed.

As in every other contract negotiation between Menino and the firefighters, city hall embarked on a mission of deceit and exploitation, using unnamed city hall sources to spew lies and accusations to the press intended to smear our reputation and hide their own failure to manage the department. The mayor claims that the union refuses to negotiate when he knows full well that we seek compromise. Thus far, the city has been more willing to waste the taxpayers' time and money with its endless campaign of deception than it has used it to be a partner in bargaining an agreement in good faith to provide a better product to the citizens, and safer working conditions for firefighters.

The slander campaign hit an all time low when "unnamed city hall sources" leaked the still unsubstantiated reports of drug and alcohol use by two brave Boston firefighters who heroically sacrificed their lives fighting a fire in West Roxbury last Aug. 29. Although never proposed by the city at the bargaining table throughout these negotiations, random testing became the city's priority immediately following these allegations - and their way to avoid real discussion on the issue of primary concern to Boston Firefighters: public safety. Anyone who has witnessed the heroic efforts that firefighters make on a daily basis to keep the city of Boston safe knows that having a clean and sober workforce is a top priority of Local 718. This is clearly evident in the drug testing and employee assistance program currently in place, which was proposed and implemented by the union 25 years ago, and to date has saved hundreds of lives.

While the city has negotiated random drug testing with both the police and EMS unions in exchange for substantial educational and early retirement benefits, the city is attempting to manipulate collective bargaining laws by adding the issue to the arbitration petition it filed on Aug. 1, 2008 just 28 days before our heroic brothers Paul Cahill and Warren Payne gave their lives protecting our city. Boston firefighters deserve the same right to negotiate as the other unions.

All members of the Boston Firefighters Local 718 have sworn an oath that we would be willing to give our lives for the people of our city, as we have done 188 times and counting. We deserve to negotiate a contract in good faith that will allow us to uphold our promise, but, unfortunately, the city has taken no oath to treat us respectfully, and instead has chosen to use underhanded tactics to bully us into submission. City Hall might think it is beating us by tarnishing our image, but the people of Boston know if they need help, just pull the hook on the red box on the corner - and the firefighters are coming! At the end of this saga, the people will again respect us for who we are, your neighbors, who show up when people are at their worst and make it better, or die trying. Just like Warren and Paul.

Edward Kelly is the President of the Boston Firefighters Local 718, based in Dorchester.