Despite opposition from the mayor and fire chief, Seattle firefighters have voted to go ahead with an initiative forcing the city to pay for four-person crews on all fire engines...

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Despite opposition from the mayor and fire chief, Seattle firefighters have voted to go ahead with an initiative forcing the city to pay for four-person crews on all fire engines.

In a union advisory ballot, 62 percent favored moving forward with a proposed amendment to the city charter next year, said Paul Atwater, president of the Seattle Firefighters Union, Local 27. Atwater said 536 of the union’s 970 members participated in the vote.

The union action may set up a clash between Mayor Greg Nickels and the firefighters over the measure, dubbed “Ready 4 Rescue.”

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The proposal would require the city to pay for four-person crews on all city fire engines, at an estimated cost of $4 million a year. But it would not raise taxes or specify how to pay for the increased staffing.

Nickels and Fire Chief Gregory Dean oppose the union measure and say the city would be forced to consider closing fire stations or cutting other city services if it passes.

Atwater said he was somewhat concerned that a significant minority of firefighters — 38 percent — voted against backing the initiative. He blamed fears that the mayor would retaliate against the union.

“We’re mindful of that. There are concerns out there — that the mayor is trying to exploit — that [the city] will close fire stations if this passes,” Atwater said.

But Atwater said he has been telling firefighters the specter of station closures is “an empty threat” and would be “political suicide” for the mayor.

He predicted the union would move forward with its campaign but said the executive board, which meets tomorrow, would need to give final approval.

Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said he believes the union proposal is a ploy to win concessions in contract talks with the city. The firefighter-union contract expires at the end of the year.

The mayor’s office and Dean said they support increased staffing on fire engines but disagree with the union’s method.

As an alternative, the city has proposed requiring firefighters to work three extra hours a week, saying that would provide enough on-duty personnel to provide four-person crews on all engines.

But Atwater said it is unfair to force firefighters to work extra hours to provide the “minimum level of safety” that firefighters and the public deserve. The National Fire Protection Association’s safety recommendations call for four-person staffing on fire engines.

Of Seattle’s 44 fire companies, all but 10 are staffed with four-person crews. The others have three-person crews.

The union proposal may wind up in court before it heads to the ballot. Ceis said he has asked City Attorney Tom Carr’s office for an opinion on its legality. Carr declined comment yesterday.

The firefighters union is anticipating a city lawsuit and has included money for a legal defense in its proposed $150,000 budget for the charter-amendment campaign.

To make the November ballot, firefighters would have to gather a minimum of 25,842 valid signatures from registered Seattle voters.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com