Jackson firefighters express frustration with the fire chief, command staff. See details

The Jackson City Council approved a $3.1 million contract to replace a fire station on Tuesday. The news follows a recent press conference by Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba where he unveiled four new fire trucks for the department.
The Jackson City Council approved a $3.1 million contract to replace a fire station on Tuesday. The news follows a recent press conference by Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba where he unveiled four new fire trucks for the department.

Firefighters within the Jackson Fire Department are requesting a vote of "no confidence" against Fire Chief Willie Owens and his command staff, according to fire Capt. RaSean Thomas and fire Lt. Michael Linzy who spoke to the Clarion Ledger in a telephone interview Friday afternoon.

The call for a "no confidence" vote comes after Owens presented his budget proposal, which failed to include pay raises for the firefighters, to the Jackson City Council on Wednesday.

Thomas and Linzy said the vote of no confidence could happen "as early as next week."

"A chief that leads a department of this size who doesn't see fit for his men to be paid properly? Then he's unfit for leadership," Linzy said.

Pay raises for the JFD has been a controversial issue since the Aug. 1 city council meeting, where Thomas, speaking on behalf of the over 50 firefighters who packed the chambers, demanded a "significant" raise for the department. Firefighters have also been calling out of work in protest, starting on Monday when 59 firefighters did not show up for their shifts. Thomas and Linzy said they have been told that call-outs will continue until something is done regarding raises.

Thomas shared the proposed new salaries that he and other firefighters want to see with the Clarion Ledger. The proposal calls for the starting pay for firefighters to be between $45,000-$47,000 annually; between $55,000-$57,0000 for fire lieutenants; $65,000-$67,000 for fire captains; and $70,000 for district fire chiefs. It also calls for an annual 2-3% cost of living increase.

"What that's going to do is never put the Jackson Fire Department behind again and keep us competitive with surrounding departments," Thomas said.

Thomas and Linzy are the president and vice president of JFD's Local 87 Union. They emphasized that calls for raises weren't orchestrated by the union, but by all the firefighters within the Jackson Fire Department.

"It's not a union movement, it's a Jackson firefighter movement," Thomas said.

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Owens' stands firm on lack of raises in budget proposal

During Wednesday's budget hearing, council members pressed Owens about the lack of including raises for the firefighters in his proposal, but Owens was firm in his response that the department does not have enough money to grant pay raises.

"No, we don't have anything in our budget that could give a raise. We really don't," Owens told the council. "There's nothing in this budget where we could give any type of raise. It wouldn't amount to anything. We don't have any positions to give up because we're short already. So, we need all the positions."

Currently, the fire department has 65 vacancies. Ward 6 Councilman and Council President Aaron Banks asked the chief if cutting those positions was an option, therefore freeing up money to provide for the raises. Owens said no, the positions cannot be cut because the fire department has to have a certain amount of firefighters on staff or the city's fire insurance rating will increase. Owens also told the council he was confident that the fire department will be able to fill those positions.

But Thomas and Linzy disagreed and expressed frustration over Owens' refusal to cut positions. They also said the fire department hasn't been fully staffed in over 20 years.

"Those positions he's talking about getting filled by next summer have not been filled in over 20 years. Not one of them. We've been short for the past 10 years tremendously and this past year we've been totally short. So I don't know what he's talking about filling positions," Thomas said. "I'm going to tell you what they're filling them with now that the citizens need to know: uncertified firefighters who have no desire to be a fireman. That's what you got on the firetrucks in Jackson, firefighters who are not even certified."

Thomas and Linzy also expressed frustration with Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, who they say hasn't been advocating enough for raises for the department. They said the mayor advocated more for Richard Disposal's workers when the city was dealing with the trash crisis in April than he has for the firefighters.

"Those people do not work for the city. That's a private business," Linzy said. "He fought for those people to get a raise, but has yet to raise that type of attention for his own employees. … but when it comes to taking care of us, we have to resort to these measures. And it's embarrassing and it's a shame and it's a reflection of the city's leadership."

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During his Monday press conference, Lumumba did say his administration believes the firefighters are deserving of a raise, but asked for patience while the city tries to find money in the budget.

Owens and Lumumba could not be reached for comment for this story.

How do JFD's salaries compare to other municipalities?

According to job postings on the city's website, a firefighter one or a trainee, which means they have not graduated from the fire academy, has a starting salary between $12.52-$14.86 per hour. That is $25,000-$30,000 annually.

A firefighter two, which is someone who has graduated from the fire academy and is certified, makes just over $32,500 annually, according to the city's website.

That is less than a firefighter could make in other cities such as Biloxi, Ridgeland and Southaven. In Biloxi, a firefighter 1 has a starting salary of just over $38,100 and a firefighter 2 has a starting salary of $44,586, according to documents provided by Thomas. In Ridgeland, the starting salary is $40,600.

It's even higher in Southhaven, where a firefighter 2 has an annual salary of just under $52,000. That is close to $8,000 more than a fire lieutenant, which is a higher ranking, makes in Jackson. According to an open records request submitted by the Clarion Ledger, a majority of fire lieutenants in JFD earn $44,054 annually.

Thomas collected salaries from other municipalities to use as evidence that JFD does not provide competitive pay, which leads to a lot of firefighters quitting and looking for work in those places. Thomas said JFD's pay is $10,000-$15,000 less per ranking than other fire departments in the area.

Owens also admitted that during Wednesday's budget hearing. Ward 5 Councilman Vernon Hartley asked Owens if the fire department's pay is competitive with other municipalities:

"No," Owens said. "I don't know the exact figures, but I do know from what I've heard it's maybe $10,000-to-$15,000 off."

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Jackson firefighters plan "no confidence" vote for fire chief