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Thursday, February 19, 2015
Every year the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides funds through the Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response (SAFER) Grant to assist communities and their fire departments with the number one priority of bringing laid off firefighters back to work. Had the Lockport Fire Department applied for the grant under it’s highest priority I am completely confident that we would have been one of the cities awarded it. There may be no community in greater need of these funds for basic services than Lockport. However, the Lockport Common Council opposed the resolution Wednesday evening, refusing to authorize the acting Fire Chief, Pat Brady, to submit an application for the grant for the purpose of re-hiring firefighters.

Carried, however, was a resolution for Chief Brady to apply for the grant under the premise of retaining firefighters, which is the second priority of the grant and something that we barely qualify for. The grant states that it’s second priority is to retain firefighters facing imminent layoff or to fill positions vacated through attrition but not filled due to economic circumstance, which neither apply to us if we are completely honest with ourselves. The way that the city will try to write the grant is both sneaky and not in the spirit of what it is intended for. As a matter of course, Mayor Anne McCaffrey and council members who agreed with her on the topic must be aware that Lockport will be a lot less likely awarded the grant money than if they had applied to bring firefighters back. It was the mayor’s calculated and somewhat clever way of showing the community that she supported applying for the much debated grant, though our chances of actually getting it are now greatly diminished.

This grant could have brought four of the 12 laid off firefighters back to work for the next two years, adding one more man to each platoon. No strings attached, this grant would have paid their salaries, health insurance, and pensions for the next two years. Returning to work would have been younger firefighter paramedics in their prime who would enhance a department currently made up of men between the ages of 41-60. Among those four firefighter paramedics is Jim Scapelliti, who was awarded Firefighter of the Year in 2009 after saving the life of two year old Neveah Parker who was trapped in her burning Vine Street home on the morning of April 29th of that year. As taxpayers we have paid for the training of these very qualified men yet are currently unable to benefit from the fruits of their labor.

Adding one more man to each platoon would have greatly alleviated overtime pay, eliminating automatic overtime and saving the city $107,000 alone just from July 1st until September 30th. My father, Mark Devine, did this math, taking into account that during this time firefighters will be taking time off for vacation, holidays and compensation time. In his speech addressing the council he mentioned that if Lockport were awarded the grant the city would be able to take money from the overtime fund and put it either into the city’s savings or use it directly toward paying off our deficit.

Also included in my father’s address to the council was part of a conversation he had with Binghamton, NY Fire Chief Daniel Thomas, whose department was awarded the SAFER Grant both in 2009 ($929,006) and 2013 ($1,340,375). Chief Thomas told him, “The grant did what it was intended to do.” He was able to add one man to his tower ladder and one to his rescue squad. Chief Thomas also felt that it would be a win/win for the City of Lockport and our fire department.

This grant is FREE MONEY specific to the need of bringing back laid off firefighters, something that our city is in great desperation of and certainly qualifies for. The grant money doesn’t come from our taxes, there is no hidden agenda, the city is under no obligation to follow a set of standards once the grant’s two year performance period is over. Anyone who made such claims either misread or did not read the grant at all. After the performance period, the situation would need to be revisited with a possible recurrence of layoffs.

Mayor McCaffrey commented before beginning the Motions and Resolutions section of the meeting that she could not support the grant for the return of firefighters due to financial matters and that her hands were tied. After a short recess and before the vote, Alderman Genewick made a speech with many reasons as to why he felt his fellow council members should join him in opposing the grant, stating that the city would have to pay for more equipment, legacy costs, etc. All of his claims were untrue or invalid, which he would have known had he carefully read the grant. The vote to apply in the highest priority was at a 3-3 tie which was broken by the mayor’s opposition vote. This leaves me wondering, in a time of such financial crisis, why does Mayor McCaffrey not want our fire department to serve us as safe and efficiently as possible, all while saving the city money?

I know that McCaffery is intelligent enough to be able to tell which was the smarter decision. The grant money would go farther if we were in the spotlight of high priority: It could have potentially awarded our department with a higher amount of money and it would have eliminated automatic overtime. Now we may get nothing! We aren't a high priority exactly because our own council and mayor voted us not to be! This grant would have helped balance the budget, which is the mayor’s main goal, yet she went against it. Not making the smartest decision especially when its clearly the right decision shows either inadequacy for the task at hand or worse, lack of integrity.

One woman commented at the meeting that we are not in need of more firefighters, that we only want more. She mentioned, “It’s not like we have fires that we can’t put out.” While that is true, it is only part of the story. It doesn’t account for safety or overtime. As a sister, daughter, granddaughter, and niece of firemen, the safety of all firefighters always has been and always will be very close to my heart. Currently the fire department has a minimum manning of six per platoon, down from nine, which is dangerous for them and also for us and our families. So my question to her is: Should we wait until a firefighter gets injured or even has a fatal accident due to being undermanned that we can finally admit that we need more firefighters? Wouldn’t we all like to feel assured that any fire that starts will be put out as swiftly as possible? Can you imagine what you would hope for from the fire department in the situation that your house is burning and your child is trapped inside? This is reality. Our firefighters cannot even use the ladder truck when only six men are working but can when manned at eight, so for the most part it is out of service, unless more men are called in for overtime. What happens if there is more than one fire at a time? Overtime! It’s either have more men on a platoon or pay more in overtime, and since overtime pays time and a half and adding more men would have been free, the answer should have been simple. With one positive word the mayor could have alleviated the immediate pressure of overtime, for free.

Back in August, the council eliminated the fire department’s ambulance services and contracted with the for profit private entity Twin Cities. By outsourcing we have not only seen a reduction in service but we have also given up nearly $700,000 in annual revenue. We have some of the best paramedics in New York State in our department, yet we downgraded for what reason? The answer is not because of money. The intelligent and fiscally responsible decision would have been to expand our ambulance and paramedic services, yet they have been removed altogether. Every move the council makes in regards to the fire department is setting us back and to me it seems as though Mayor McCaffrey is on a mission to dissolve the fire department altogether. At Wednesday’s meeting the unelected mayor made it crystal clear that she really does not care about all the citizens of Lockport or the men who risk their lives to protect us day and night as she continues to neglect our safety and our wallets. As a member of this community I think it’s very unfair for the people to be so poorly protected, and with a 20% increase in taxes in an already overpriced area we should at least have our basic service needs (not wants) met.

If the current dissolution of the fire department were solely about money, we would have expanded the ambulance services and applied for the grant as it is intended for. The grant should have never been debated and never would have been if well intentioned people were serving our best interests. Even if we are awarded the grant money under the second priority this will not relieve our city of overtime pay to the fire department, as they will still be below minimum manning much of the year. The bottom line is that the current mayor is doing a huge disservice to our community. I hope everyone is paying attention to what is going on. This year marks the 150th birthday of our great City of Lockport, and we cannot look the other way while everything that our fathers and grandfathers worked for falls apart. I love Lockport and I’m proud of those of us who are making it better. Election season comes this fall, it’s time for us all to get involved in making it better.

— Lyndsey Devine is a Lockport resident

NOTE: Letter edited by Ms. Devine at 3:13 p.m. 2/20/15.

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