FEATURE ‌ Fired Up 

Pay scale has Charleston firefighters hot under the collar

click to enlarge Charleston Firefighters Association spokesman Roger Yow is leading the fight for pay scale adjustments
  • Charleston Firefighters Association spokesman Roger Yow is leading the fight for pay scale adjustments

Having premium firefighters doesn't necessarily mean paying premium firefighter salaries. This is something Charleston first responders are hoping to amend. Local 61, the Charleston Firefighter's Association (CFA) has begun a campaign to initiate a pay scale adjustment for the city's firefighters.

What CFA proposes is an adjustment that takes into account Charleston's cost of living, the longevity of a firefighter's commitment to the force, the duties of the position, and the prestige and added requirements of working for Charleston's Class 1 fire department.

"We are not trying to compare our salaries to the national — not to New York City, or others — that is out of scale, and we don't want just a raise, that wouldn't fix the problem," says Roger Yow, president and spokesman for the CFA.

Yow is a retired captain of the Charleston Fire Department. He started his career as a professional firefighter in 1978 and worked his way through the ranks to captain, a position he held for 17 years. In 2003, Yow injured his back on the job and was forced to retire on disability. But he hasn't left his work with firefighters. "We are a family and that doesn't stop when you retire," says Yow.

His retired position has made him the ideal spokesman for the CFA. Because of the nature of their request, many firefighters are wary of making their views about the pay scale public. "Chief Thomas knows that over 100 Charleston firefighters are members of the union, but he doesn't like the pressure of the union," says one firefighter who asked to remain anonymous. "If our names were in the press he could move us into a very undesirable location. We had to use a retired fireman to prevent any kind of retribution."

Yow has been working tirelessly for the last year and a half to bring the issue of a pay scale increase to the attention of the mayor and the City Council. He sent letters to Chief Russell Thomas, the City Council, and Mayor Riley. After receiving no response, Yow has taken his fight to the public.

Charleston career firefighters, engineers, and captains with 10 to 30 years of dedicated service, have salaries that fall well below other area fire departments. Pay scales within Charleston are also inconsistent.

"I've worked with the Charleston Fire Department for 10 years. My superior has been with the department for 30 years. He only gets $20 every other week more than I do," says a firefighter. "New guys that come in make even more." He explains, "the entry level pay scales get adjusted, but they don't make adjustments up the line."

Currently, Charleston firefighters are given a five percent raise every year for their first eight years with the department. After that, raises are given only with promotions.

One fireman is on a team with a tenured fighter that has been with the department for over 20 years; the newest man on his team has been there for a year and a half. The difference in the two men's salaries is 12 percent, and after the new recruit has received his five percent annual raises for the first eight years, he will be making 30 percent more than the veteran firefighter.

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"There are no longevity increases to reward people who have been with the city of Charleston for a long time," says Yow. "These people make split second decisions that affect the lives of their crew and the public. If someone stays a firefighter for 20 years, you need to reward him for sticking with it."

"Do firefighters need more money? Hell yeah," says City Councilman Larry Shirley. "The reality with municipal governments the way they are is that first responders aren't paid the way they should be."

Councilman Shirley is concerned, however, that the statistics Yow and the Firefighter's Association have relied upon for the pay scale request may not be accurate. "The last time we had a study, our firefighters were being paid more than the cities compared in the graphs. Graphs can be made to say anything. If they are telling the truth in this situation, then we have a problem."

The pay scale adjustment study that the CFA has requested would resolve these issues one way or the other. The study the Association has proposed to the city commission would reevaluate all of the factors involved in determining pay scale and come up with a final formula. Yow is confident that the study would produce the same findings the Association has, and that the reformed formula would be to the benefit of the firefighters.

"I've always been supportive of firefighters. I don't know if their information is correct, but if it is, I'll get to the bottom of it," says councilman Shirley.

Charleston Fire Chief Russell Thomas is less certain of the City Council's commitment to this issue. "I don't know if the City Council is going to do anything," Thomas says. "I don't think they will, but it would be their decision and the mayor's."

The City Council and Mayor's office have been aware of the Firefighter's Association request since the beginning of this year. The foot-dragging is not motivated by the cost of the proposal. For a city the size of Charleston, the study truly is a drop in the bucket, costing only $15,000 to hire a third party consulting agency to do the necessary research. Councilman Shirley suggests that there may be something else behind the delay, saying that there has always been a rift between Mayor Riley and the fire department, noting, "an undercurrent of hostility."

"They stick their head in the sand," says Yow. "They've got the mentality that what they're doing is 100 percent right, and they aren't going to change. It's the same old good old boy system."

The bad blood between the fire department and the city began in the 1970s, when Joe Riley first ran for mayor. To gain the support of the firefighters, Riley made a campaign promise to raise their pay to equal that of the police department's. After becoming elected, Riley neglected to follow through with the pay increase. In response, the firefighters picketed the mayor's house. The incident has soured the relationship ever since.

"We are not going to do a pay scale study. We work very hard to make sure our city employees are compensated very well," says Mayor Riley. "I feel that I have an excellent relationship with the fire department. There isn't any bad blood. The incident that occurred was in 1976 — 30 years ago — and it was a short lived disagreement. Since that time there have been a number of improvements and adjustments made for the sake of our firefighters. Our firefighters are wonderful and perform exceedingly well and we feel that their salaries are competetive."

"The city boasts that we are the best in South Carolina but the pay doesn't reflect that. We should be leading the way in firefighter compensation in the same way we lead the way in first responder defense," says Yow. "To do that kind of job requires a lot of knowledge and recertification every year."

The Charleston Fire Department's elite Class 1 ranking makes them one of only 40 out of 43,000 departments in the country with this designation. The rankings are determined by Insurance Services Office Inc. and are based on a 1-10 scale.

"Our firefighters are the best in South Carolina, and they should be paid for that," says Councilman Shirley.

He insists that he is going to ask the city's Human Resources department personally to get an exact pay scale together so that it can be evaluated at the next City Council meeting, on July 18.

In the meantime, Yow and the Firefighter's Association are taking it to the streets. "If we've got to get banners out and march in the streets to get attention, we will." The firefighters currently have plans to launch a mass mailing to make citizens aware of the situation and to drum up support.

"We've got our backs against the wall, here," says Yow. "We are trying to look out for the best interest of our firefighters, and the city should share those interests."


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