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Don't be so quick to hire Public should know why city has triple the number of hurt firefighters as other cities

Mayor Byron W. Brown wants Buffalo's control board to allow the city to hire 40 new firefighters. His administration argues that overtime is up and new hires would reduce it. That may be a step to consider, but not yet.

The city's 731-member department has 86 firefighters injured and not working, costing the city $7.2 million a year. A study says that a department the size of Buffalo's should have 25 to 30 on the injured list. So the problem isn't not enough firefighters; it's not enough working. The question then is why. The city must report to the public that everything possible to do has been done. Firefighting is a dangerous job, with injury part of the package, and firefighters are routinely courageous doing it. But if other cities' departments -- with different tactics, superior training and flexible rules -- have fewer injured, the mayor should first find out why. Right now, 86 injured firefighters, plus 40 new ones, would cost the city $10.6 million; well more than the overtime bill.

But for argument's sake, let's say the city hires 40 firefighters to put a dent in annual overtime of $4.43 million in 2005 and a projected $6.7 million for 2006. By the current ratio, five of those will be on the injured list every year. And, let's say all 40 work 20 years, at a cost to the city right now of $84,000 each in salary and benefits. They then retire with full health care and pensions, which continue to build for the injured. By all means, cut overtime, but not on the backs of taxpayers; and hiring the 40 would have little effect on 2006.

Look too at the injured on duty rules. By federal law an injured firefighter receives full pay tax free to sit home injured. Where is the incentive to return to work when you make a 25 percent premium for not working? Second, do city personnel routinely see injured firefighters to determine if they are actually unable to work? Third, to get on the injured list, firefighters do not have to be hurt working, merely "while on duty." So if, for example, one is in a fight with another firefighter over the lunch menu and both are hurt, each can claim benefits.

Here's another aspect the mayor might want to consider before writing a check for $3.4 million for 40 new firefighters the city can't afford: The union is correct that firefighters need more training, but the department's tactics should be examined as well. Why should firefighters aggressively -- meaning going inside and risking injury or their lives -- fight fires in buildings due to be torn down? Philadelphia chose years ago to put out fires in such structures while staying outside, and, at least in part, injuries dropped by 58 percent starting in 2000.

After Fire Commissioner Michael S. Lombardo applies to his own department the popular "zero tolerance" the mayor touts, then Brown might think about hiring more firefighters. This will no doubt anger various fire unions, which supported Brown with $27,150 in campaign money. Union firefighters also protested the closing and consolidation of fire houses, yet there were few negative results; maybe more should be considered. The control board's task is to right city finances, something the administration could further by getting as many firefighters back to work as possible.

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