UP IN FLAMES
Updated: Jan 2, 2022
Out of a 60-person force, 33 Ocoee firefighters called it quits in the last three years — including 14 since January. Why isn’t the city fighting harder to keep its first responders?
by Norine Dworkin
“I’ve been here 18 years, and I’ve never seen morale this low. People don’t even want to come to work.”
That’s Chris Atalski, an engineer with Ocoee’s Fire Department. It is scorching hot on this Memorial Day weekend afternoon, and we are under the gazebo in Ocoee’s Bill Breeze Park, sitting on the kind of collapsible chairs you’d schlep to the sidelines to watch your kid play soccer. Between sips of an energy drink, he’s telling me about a fire department in crisis as firefighter after firefighter abandons Ocoee for greener pastures.
It’s a familiar pattern. New hires come on board, get some training and after a few months, maybe a couple of years, they leave for higher paying jobs in Orlando, Orange County, Winter Park, Reedy Creek and elsewhere.
“You can’t get that machine well-oiled if you keep switching out the personnel,” says Atalski, 39, who joined the fire department in 2003. “There are some lieutenants that have four new hires with a year-and-a-half experience. For a supervisor running a station with an engine and a rescue with personnel who only have a year-and-a-half of experience, that’s a lot. You really have to keep an eye on them.”
Ocoee’s fire department has shed so many first responders in the last three years — 33 total, including 14 since January — that while the department only has five openings on its 60-person roster, there are just three firefighters left with 15-plus years experience.
“It’s a safety concern for the city and the citizens. We’re hiring so many new people, we don’t have the time to give them the training and experience they need,” says Atalski. “We work in teams of two, and you put two brand new guys together to do something who have two years experience combined, and it’s cringing for sure.”
IT’S UNCLEAR WHAT THE tipping point was that's prompted the steady march toward the exits. Some firefighters point to the lingering effects of the housing and economic crisis. Others to a misbegotten idea to outsource Ocoee’s fire department to Orange County. But Atalski, who is also the Ocoee Professional Firefighters Local 3623 president, pegged the beginning of the exodus to the arrival of John Miller, who took over as Ocoee fire chief in 2015.
Initially, Miller, who helmed the Orlando Fire Department before taking over Ocoee’s, could do no wrong.
“The fire department got behind Chief Miller 110 percent,” recalled Fred “Shorty” Bowman, the union’s vice president. “If Chief Miller said, We need to flip that car on its roof, there were 14 of us going out to flip that car on its roof.”
“He made positive changes in the department,” Bowman added. “When he first came, he said, You guys follow me, and there will be great things. He didn’t promise me money or more time off. But I felt like him saying Follow me and there will be great things, and him coming from the city of Orlando and you look at the benefits package and the things Orlando firefighters have, that’s what went through 95 percent of the fire department’s minds. Everyone jumped on board.”
A firefighter who didn’t want to give their name out of fear of retaliation added: “When we had Miller come into the department, we had a glimmer of hope like, Oh man, we're going to get this highly rated Chief from Orlando.”
Among the most significant changes Miller made was raising the Ocoee Fire Department’s ISO rating from a Class 3 to a Class 1. An ISO Score (with 1 as the best and 10 as the worst) is determined by the Insurance Services Office and reflects how well-equipped a fire department is to respond to and extinguish fires in the community. Home insurance companies use that information to set insurance rates. The lower the ISO Score, the lower the home insurance premiums. Upwards of 48,000 fire departments have been rated by the ISO; fewer than 1 percent earned a Class 1.
“We had a lot more training, and all of that equates to a Class 1 rating,” explains Atalski.
Orlando, Orange County, Clermont, Apopka and Kissimmee are all ISO 1. Winter Garden is ISO 2. Osceola County is ISO 5.
Miller also pursued a Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI) from the Center for Public Safety and Excellence, a nonprofit education and credentialing organization for fire and emergency service agencies.
“This shows that there’s transparency in the fire department, that there are checks and balances and the fire department is organized in a way to protect the citizens,” Atalski explains. “If it takes us more than six minutes to get to a call, we’ve got to tell the fire chief why. We have one minute to get out of the station if we get a call, and if it’s one minute and one second, we have to write a piece of paper to the chief and tell him why. Everything is documented.”
Just 290 fire and emergency service departments in the world are CFAI accredited. We have five in our region: Orlando, Orange County, Winter Park, Clermont and Ocoee.
Then Miller added the emergency medical services (EMS).
Atalski said there was wide support in the fire department for taking over that business.
“We wanted to be able to get a call to your house, treat you and transport you to the hospital,” explains Atalski. “There’s no duplication of effort. There are statistics out there that say you get better care when you’re not passing the care onto other people., It’s a good thing for the community to have that fire-based EMS.”
It took about a year after the changes Miller instituted, Atalski recalls, for the firefighters to start grumbling about the extra work and wondering when they were going to see some compensation.
“We come up for our first contract under Chief Miller, and the money is nowhere near what we thought would be there,” Bowman said. “The benefits are not increased. There’s no increase to our paid time off. There’s no increase to our pension. There’s no increase to almost anything. The cost of living has outrun the 3 percent raise they want to give us every year, and we’re all standing around looking at each other dumbfounded. Man! We jumped in behind that fire chief and done all this work and gone above and beyond, and now there’s no money to go with all this extra work being done.”
IT WAS THE GERMAN economist Ludwig Erhard, the man credited with resuscitating West Germany’s economy after WWII, who said, “A compromise is the art of dividing a cake in such a way that everyone believes he has the biggest piece.”
The feeling among Ocoee's firefighters is that their cake slices are getting smaller and harder to swallow.
On Monday, July 26, the union and the city’s negotiators will sit down at the bargaining table for their fourth meeting this year to try to come to terms on a new contract. The meeting will be held at the Lakeshore Center (125 N. Lakeshore Dr.) at 9 a.m. It is open to the public.
Some first responders are on food stamps or sell their plasma to help make ends meet.
Meanwhile, in this multi-part series, VoxPopuli will be exploring what's driving firefighters from the Ocoee Fire Department. Among the issues:
The zombie contract. Ocoee's firefighters have been working under a zombie contract since October. Union contracts span three years, running from the start of the city’s fiscal year on October 1 through September 30. The last one covered October 1, 2017 through September 30, 2020. However, it took two-and-a-half years to negotiate, and and by the time the contract was finally signed in December 2020, it had already expired. Now the union is negotiating over 2020-2023, trying to claw back some of what was signed away under prior contracts, including raises, pension benefits and the right to arbitrate demotions. The union is also looking for clarity on new issues, such as fair payments for Covid-19 absences.
Money. Starting salary for new hires in the Ocoee Fire Department is $13.74 an hour. Some are on food stamps or sell their plasma to make ends meet, according to Angel Perry, the executive vice president for Communications Workers of America Local 3108 who has assisted the union during negotiations. Practically every firefighter takes a second job or has a side hustle to help pay the bills.
And, as Florida's minimum wage continues to rise to $15 per hour, many union firefighters are worried that if their salaries don't eclipse the cost-of-living adjustment by 2026 then they will essentially be earning as much as a teenager working at McDonald's.
This is not far-fetched. The city’s April 29 proposal offered to increase starting salaries to $44,000 by 2023. When you consider that Ocoee firefighters work a 56-hour week to keep the firehouse staffed 24/7, and a total of 2,912 hours a year, that factors out to $15 an hour.
City of Ocoee Police cadets earn more — $18 an hour. According to documents obtained by VoxPopuli, 63 percent of Ocoee’s firefighters, including a lieutenant, six engineers and 31 firefighters, currently make less than $18 an hour.
At the July 20 City Commission meeting, Ocoee Mayor Rusty Johnson described the city’s proposal as “a good deal.”
Uncertain Leadership. The rank and file “fell out of love” with the fire chief, as Bowman puts it, after the 2017-2020 contract didn’t reflect any compensation for the additional work they did to achieve the ISO 1 and CFAI ratings. But it is unclear whether the chief has the authority to to even call the shots when it comes to employee compensation. While equipment requests — a generator for Station 38, approved at the July 20 city commission meeting, new trucks or rescues, an IT system — are readily green-lighted, the chief routinely refers employee requests and questions to the city manager, Rob Frank.
“Everything gets accepted or denied at the city manager level,” says Atalski. “Even when our contract says the fire chief has approval, when we ask our fire chief a question, he just points toward City Hall and says, You gotta get the answer from there.
"He’ll tell us all day that he supports pay, benefits and anything else that the union proposes because he believes that we deserve it. But is he going to go down there and bang his fist on the table and demand reasonable pay benefits and working conditions? He’s not gonna lose his job or lose face over telling the city manager that we deserve better pay and benefits.”
63 percent of Ocoee's seasoned firefighters currently make less than Ocoee police cadets.
Paramedic education. Ocoee firefighters are required to train to become paramedics within two years of being hired. Training can cost between $8,000 to $10,000 — which is why many new hires leave after two years when they realize they can’t afford to pay for it themselves. The union wants the city to cover the costs as, Atalski says, Miller has been leading new hires to believe that the city will do.
Miller did not respond to repeated calls and emails to his office for comment.
Pension. Ocoee firefighters pay 8 percent of their salary into a pension fund. It’s automatically deducted from their paychecks. But there’s supplemental pension money that the state provides to Ocoee for maintaining a fire department separate from the county fire department. This money is known as “175 Money” because it comes from 1.75 percent of the tax that Florida collects on homeowners’ insurance policies issued to every residence, commercial property and plot of land within the city limits.
Typically, the fire department and Ocoee divvy up the 175 money. But in 2015, the city requested that the union give over its share of the 175 money to help offset some of the costs of funding the pension. Now the union wants the money back. While it can’t collect retroactively, the union wants to resume pocketing its share — about $150,000 a year. The city claims the give-back was permanent. The union maintains that arrangement ended when the contract expired. “That’s the way it was pitched to us, the voting membership,’’ says Bowman.
At the center of the dispute is a 2015 mutual consent agreement (MCA) signed by the union’s late president James Kelley. The last line of the MCA states, “This mutual agreement will remain in effect until the parties mutually consent to change or revoke this agreement.”
The union maintains this document is not legally binding. The memo is not notarized. Nor were there any other union members present when the MCA was signed as is customary. Kelley’s name is misspelled on the document and his signature is also dated April 21, 2017. The rest of the signatures — Mayor Rusty Johnson, City Manager Rob Frank and Human Resources Director Gene Williford— are dated April 25, 2017. These discrepancies have also given rise to speculation within the union that the MCA document may be fake.
Frank declined to be interviewed and did not respond to an email sent to his office for comment.
Morale. There’s low pay, no raises, the loss of 175 money and even mandatory overtime. But firefighters also say that one of the biggest morale crushers came when the union was negotiating the 2014-2017 contract and the city floated the idea of eliminating the fire department altogether and allowing Orange County to take over.
“Throughout the entire fire department, that was the word out there — If you don’t take this contract, you’re going to the county,” recalls Bowman. “That’s really what put the nail in the coffin of the department’s morale. It was defeated by the City Commission by a 5-0 vote. But it resonated through the fire department for probably a year and a half until the city management got us to agree to the contract that they wanted us to agree to. The pay, the cut in pensions, all the benefit cuts. Once all that stuff was established, and they got the contract they wanted, it was voted down, 5 to 0.”