New EMTs, assistant chief for Bloomington fire department put off for now

Bloomington’s city council approved two salary ordinances Wednesday night, but not before striking some planned new jobs in the fire department.

Three planned new emergency medical technician positions have been put off, at least for now. That leaves the number of budgeted EMT positions in the fire department at four.

Also delayed is a new assistant chief position that fire chief Jason Moore wanted to add.

The new assistant chief position was supposed to have been assigned to oversee operations—assessing safety risks to firefighters during structural fires, and administering the department’s health and safety program.

The council’s votes to make the amendments and to adopt the ordinances as amended were unanimous among the seven councilmembers present.

But the amendments deleting the new positions were also supported by fire chief Moore, even after he argued for adding them last week.

Representatives of the firefighters union had raised questions at last week’s city council meeting, when the council was set to vote on enactment of the ordinances. The council decided to postpone consideration of both items until this Wednesday.

Absent from this Wednesday’s meeting were Matt Flaherty and Jim Sims.

Left intact in the ordinances was, among other things, the addition of a third project manager for the engineering department, to help oversee construction of city-led capital projects. According to information in the city council’s meeting information packet, the city currently pays consultants for the same kind of work.

Also left intact was a new title along with a pay increase for a position at city of Bloomington utilities—the job will now be called the hazardous materials coordinator.

Also left intact in the ordinances enacted on Wednesday night were some increased benefits for firefighters.

Approved was a payment to firefighters that does not raise their annual salary, but gives them the cash equivalent of an extra 3-percent increase this year, above the amount specified in their 2022 collective bargaining agreement. Combined with their contractual 2-percent increase, that approximates for firefighters the 5-percent increase that non-union employees received from 2022 to 2023.

As a part of the package approved on Wednesday, new firefighters will receive a $5,000 signing bonus.

Moore told the council on Wednesday that 11 new firefighters were added last week and seven more will be starting next Monday. Another three, for a total of 21, will start on July 24. The ordinance change, to give them the signing bonus, would allow the department to make good on a promise made during recruitment, Moore said.

Including battalion chiefs, the department is budgeted for 102 firefighters. Adding 21 new firefighters to fill vacancies is a reflection of the staffing shortage the department has faced recently.

The new recruits will make for a young department—something that factors into Moore’s thinking about the need for the new assistant chief position, to oversee the department’s safety program.

About the assistant chief position, Moore said, “This is a vital position that is needed.”

At last week’s council meeting, fire union secretary-treasurer Shaun Huttenlocker said about the proposed assistant chief position: “I think it would be fair to say that retention is our biggest issue. I don’t think anybody has said a shortage of chiefs is our biggest issue.”

Promotions to the assistant chief’s level have to be made internally. About getting someone into that position, Moore said this Wednesday, “I have concerns as to how we can fill it.”

Moore said the assistant chief position was proposed to help get past the staffing crisis. Moore said, “When we are no longer in crisis, this is something we’d like to revisit.” Moore wants the assistant chief position to add to “the capacity of administration to handle a younger workforce that is not as experienced.”

Moore told the council he also still wants eventually to add the three EMT positions, to help expand the department’s mobile integrated health program.

But at Wednesday’s meeting, Moore said he supports putting those new positions aside for now, to allow more time to discuss with union firefighters their concerns. Those concerns involve what firefighters perceive as the potential replacement of sworn firefighter positions with civilian positions.

Moore put it like this: “I am in full support of adding these [EMT] positions, with the future issues that our fire department is facing. But at this time, I would like additional time to work with our firefighters and administrative staff to make sure that this is a good fit and that we are hearing their concerns.”

Last week, Moore said about the department’s mobile integrated health care program: “There are some medical calls that firefighters don’t need to be on. There is a shortage of ambulances in our county.”

In his remarks last week, Moore also said, “We are constantly going on calls for lift assists. We are going on calls for non-critical medical emergencies when there are no available ambulances.” Adding three EMTs to the four who are already working in the department would allow the department to “fast-forward the evolution of our mobile integrated health care program,” Moore said.

This week, Moore said the delay in adding the EMTs would allow the issue to be “handled so that there is no longer a public fight over something that is for the ultimate good of our community.”