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Clearwater clashes with its firefighters

Simmering tensions between the city and its local firefighters union boiled over last week, spilling into a commission meeting and sparking angry comments from both sides.

Union president John Lee has blamed substandard equipment and staffing problems for injuries suffered by firefighters in the deadly Dolphin Cove condominium fire last month.

But frustrated city officials accuse the union of distorting issues and grandstanding in taking advantage of Dolphin Cove's timing to push its position.

The growing split comes after lingering bad blood over failed pension negotiations early this month. As it stands, contract talks this summer promise to be contentious.

On Friday, fire officials released the results of an internal investigation completed Tuesday that found that equipment worn by the three firefighters who suffered severe burns in the June 28 Dolphin Cove fire either met or exceeded standards set by the National Fire Protection Association. Results of an independent, third-party test are expected soon.

Mayor Brian Aungst, stung by Lee's criticism, fired back Friday afternoon.

Defending the current commission's commitment to the department, he noted that the city had built a new station in Sand Key and planned another in northwest Clearwater. The city has hired more than 26 firefighters since 1999.

"We've added more people in the last three or four years than they did in the last 20," Aungst said. "To get up there and act like we haven't done anything _ frankly, it's insulting, and what I'd call selective memory and convenient amnesia."

But the firefighters union has consistently called for increased staffing, specifically for four-person engine crews, a standard set by NFPA and recommended three years ago by the city's fire task force.

Currently, Clearwater staffs engines with three-member crews. City officials say they meet standards by also dispatching two-person rescue vehicles to fire scenes on a first alarm.

But an internal memo sent in April, then re-sent two weeks before the June 28 Dolphin Cove fire, said medical calls sometimes tied up rescue units, making backup unavailable. Writing to his district fire chief, a department lieutenant asked for more staff in Clearwater Beach, especially with construction on Memorial Causeway creating delays for units from the mainland.

"The highrise buildings on the beach are known as high-hazard occupancies and need manpower to get the firefighting equipment into position on upper floors for rescue," the memo states. "For the safety of the citizens we protect and the safety of the firefighters I'm making this request."

In a perfect world, said Assistant Fire Chief Charlie Flowers, the department would staff every vehicle with a four-person crew. But budget constraints make that impossible.

"We're doing everything we can to staff the equipment right, but we're doing it incrementally," he said. "To do it overnight would be a tremendous budget impact."

And City Manager Bill Horne said he wasn't convinced that four-person crews were needed, adding that no other city in Florida meets that standard.

"To the normal person, I'm not sure it's really that noticeable," he said before characterizing union demands as too steep. "They want the Cadillac version of everything. That doesn't necessarily mean that that's what we can afford or that's what's necessary."

Lee, however, insists that firefighters risking their lives deserve nothing short of the best.

"That's what we're asking for," he said. "We believe that there might be some better stuff out there that we need to take a look at."

Several other factors have contributed to the recent meltdown in labor and management relations in the department, according to city officials.

First, the forced resignation earlier this year of Paul O'Rourke, the city's personnel director, angered union leaders who had built a close relationship with him.

"They're still getting over that," Horne said. "Paul O'Rourke often buffered us from some of this animosity. (Now) no one's holding the fire union president's hand."

The Dolphin Cove fire investigation further strained relations when Lee insisted that firefighters have lawyers before cooperating with police. An offer of immunity from the department, which was later retracted, led Lee to question the administration's intentions.

Meanwhile, both sides await a ruling from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on 10 complaints filed against the city by firefighters in April.

Horne said the complaints allege that the city was biased in favor of minority candidates for promotion, an allegation he denied.

Despite bad feelings, Aungst said the department remained a desirable place to work, saying the waiting list for employment numbers more than 200.

And none of the bickering will affect public safety, he added.

"This a very professional group," said Aungst. "It has nothing to do with how they're going to perform their job."

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