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Long Beach officials, firefighters spar over cuts to emergency services

The City of Long Beach Fire Department Headquarters

The City of Long Beach Fire Department Headquarters attached to City Hall on W. Chester St. in Long Beach Dec. 17, 2014. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

A hostile Long Beach City Council meeting showed officials and paid firefighters remain divided as the city looks to revamp its emergency services.

More than 100 firefighters and supporters filled City Council chambers Wednesday night wearing red T-shirts that said "Defend Long Beach" after five firefighter jobs were eliminated last month with the expiration of a $900,000 two-year federal SAFER grant.

The meeting quickly devolved into shouting between firefighter supporters and some city officials. Firefighter supporters spoke and shouted during the meeting for nearly two hours, bolstered by former state Assemblyman and ex-fire chief Harvey Weisenberg and Nassau County Legis. Denise Ford (R-Long Beach).

Supporters of the firefighters called on the city manager to resign and warned council members that their actions could cost them in the November elections.The city is poised to follow Washington D.C.-based consultant ICMA's recommendations reducing the paid force to 12 firefighters from 24 and adding a dozen paramedics to meet 75 percent of calls for emergency services and medical response.

City Manager Jack Schnirman said the five cut positions were part of a memorandum of understanding with the fire union that the jobs were contingent upon the grant, which expired in December. He said keeping the positions would cost $650,000 annually, or the equivalent of a 2 percent tax increase.

Four firefighters were laid off Feb. 15, and a fifth firefighter took another job. Each was offered the chance to retrain as a paramedic at a lower salary, Schnirman said. Paramedic salaries range from $40,000 to $70,000; firefighter jobs can pay between $40,000 and $110,000, he said.

The firefighters who lost their jobs were given payouts ranging from $50,000 to $80,000, he said.

"This was the softest of landings," Schnirman said. "They were all given an opportunity to stay with the department. It was their choice to leave, not the city's." He also noted the expense of long-term disability for paid firefighters, which paramedics do not qualify for.

The city is preparing an application to renew the grant, but even if it is awarded, the five positions are not guaranteed to be restored, Schnirman said.

In addition to its paid firefighters, the city lists a roster of 150 volunteer firefighters.

Firefighter union president Bill Piazza said the number of volunteer firefighters does not reflect the true number of active volunteers who can respond. He said the number is closer to 60 volunteers.

"The public's voice was overwhelmingly heard. We need a fire department and cuts are unacceptable," Piazza said. "Our model is the best value to the city of Long Beach."

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