VOL. 129 | NO. 133 | Thursday, July 10, 2014
Benson Says Fire Absences Cause Concern But Not Alarm
By Bill Dries
Memphis Fire Director Alvin Benson admits the 65 firefighters out sick Wednesday, July 9, is “the highest number we’ve had off sick in one day for some time." However, he declined to call it a job action.
And Benson said leaders of the police and firefighters unions met Wednesday with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.'s administration about what Benson said were ideas for changes to the health insurance benefits cuts and proposed pension changes.
The changes have spurred a "blue flu" protest among police that has grown to include a quarter of the police force off the job since last week.
“I understand how the firefighters feel about this. I really do,” Benson said at a Wednesday afternoon press conference. “It affects me personally. I wish there could have been a different decision. I do. … There’s a lot of frustration. There’s a lot of anger. There’s a lot of confusion. The emotions are rampant. … That’s the reality, and that change has been a problem for firefighters to digest.”
Like Police Director Toney Armstrong, Benson said he and his staff had watched staffing levels closely with the first of the month and rumors of a sick-out timed with the Fourth of July holiday weekend.
And on Sunday, Benson said there had been no excessive absences beyond the normal level.
That changed yesterday with 25 firefighters calling in sick and another 40 calling in sick Wednesday, the start of the multi-day “B” shift for the fire department.
“It does cause concern. It’s nothing to be alarmed about,” he added. “This is something we hoped we wouldn’t have to talk about. But I guess today is that day.”
Because of the absences, the fire department took four ladder trucks out of service spread among the different coverage sectors of the city. The “brown-outs,” as they are known, have been an ongoing fire department strategy for the last year to deal with normal absences from work below the level seen Wednesday.
Benson said four is the maximum number of ladder trucks he feels comfortable taking out of service and being confident the fire department can respond to calls within acceptable standards.