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FIREFIGHTER UNIONS, CITY FEUD OVER FITNESS TESTS

Accusations between the city administration and the city's two fire unions flew again Wednesday -- this time over mandatory pulmonary fitness tests for firefighters who must wear respirators in the course of their duties.

Mayor James C. Galie, City Administrator Anthony J. Restaino and Chief Paul S. Shanks said firefighters are refusing the tests, which the administration officials claim puts firefighters and members of the public at risk.

Officials of the city's two fire unions counterclaimed that the administration has failed to negotiate the specifics of the tests and what measures would be taken against firefighters who failed. They called the administration's actions "prebudget harassment."

The parties have been at odds since last November when Galie proposed cutting 27 firefighting positions in this year's budget. The City Council eventually restored 17 of the positions.

Both sides accused the other of failure to negotiate over the terms of the fitness tests.

The administration officials said the city is subject to fines by the state of $200 per man, or a total of $24,000, every day that the city is not in compliance. Shanks said 120 firefighters are to be tested immediately and the remaining 15 later. The state Department of Labor gave the city until July 1 to comply.

The original complaint about the city's non-compliance to the state was made by Niagara Falls Uniformed Firefighters Association 714 in February. Some members of the department have not been tested for up to seven years. Shanks said older firefighters should be tested annually, while testing on younger members may be deferred for up to three years.

Richard L. Horn, president of the uniformed firefighters union, said he believes the firefighters should be tested. He said his concern is that the administration has failed to give the unions the specifics about the nature and cost of the tests, who would conduct them, and whether firefighters can have the tests done by their own physicians. He said he was further concerned because he has been told firefighters would undergo a different test than other city employees who also wear respirators in the course of their work.

A major sticking point between the unions and the administration is how firefighters who fail the tests would be handled. Galie, Restaino and Shanks said the administration is not planning to use the test results in a punitive manner.

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