Fire chief fields concerns from department

Columbus Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Jeff Meyer met for nearly four hours Wednesday night to discuss concerns with members of his department.

The chief met with more than 55 members of the Columbus Firefighters Association to discuss issues ranging from pay to the promotion practices. In the end, the chief appeared to answer most of the concerns. A second meeting will be held tonight at 6:30 at the association's headquarters on Lynch Road.

The concerns of those in the department are a priority, Meyer said after one firefighter complained that he had been told by his superior not to take his concerns about race to the chief.

"I want you to feel comfortable coming to me at any time," said Meyer, who started as a firefighter in 1982 and rose through the ranks until he was promoted to chief a little more than two years ago. "Whatever we are doing in this department needs to be thought out."

The association has about 250 members — including the chief. Wednesday's meeting drew a larger crowd than normally attends association meetings. It came on the heels of meetings Meyer and members of the command staff has last week with each of the department's nine battalions and many of the 380 employees.

The association questioned the chief about two recent promotions. One was the promotion of former Fire Marshal Greg Lang to deputy chief and the other was the promotion of arson investigator Darrell Bryant to fire inspector.

Capt. Mary Simonton, who applied for the deputy chief opening, has filed a fair-treatment report with the city's Human Resources Department, challenging the interview process as "unprofessional, inappropriate and insensitive." That complaint is currently under investigation by Human Resources.

The association voted to make that a dead issue and take it off the table. The association also took several other issues off the table. Those included:

-- Concerns that paramedics are not required to ride in the back of an ambulance when transporting a patient. Sometimes an EMT, who does not have the same medical qualifications as the paramedic, will ride with a patient, while the paramedic drives the ambulance.

--Additional pay for firefighters who because of vacation or sickness are forced into a sergeant's role and required to drive the truck in the sergeant's absence. In the past, those filling in have received a small pay bump for that day.

Several issues remain concerns and Meyer said they mirror the issues he heard in the battalion meetings.

Among those:

-- Supplemental pay for employees who have special training. Currently paramedics and EMTs receive additional pay. The association would like for those who hold hazardous material certification, rescue divers and other speciality assignments to receive additional pay for their skills.

-- Currently officers are not offered the opportunity to become paramedics and EMTs. Thus they can't receive the supplemental pay. It has created some pay inequities. One sergeant pointed out that a firefighter/EMT on his truck and under his command makes the same pay as he does because of the certification.

-- The name of the department — Columbus Fire and Emergency Medical Services — is a concern because it creates a division between traditional firefighters and medical personnel. The name was changed in 2001 when the two departments were merged. Some in the association, including President Bobby Dutton, would like to see if called Columbus Fire and Rescue. One of the obstacles to such a change is cost. When the name was changed seven years ago, it cost more than $100,000 because of changes such as uniforms and lettering on trucks.

Four Columbus councilors — Mike Baker, Evelyn Pugh, Pops Barnes and Glenn Davis — attended the meeting.

Baker said he was there observing.

"I want them to work through as many things internally as they can," Baker said. "I am not going to micromanage the fire department."

Meyer and association President Bobby Dutton, a battalion chief, both discussed the fact that some people in the department felt the association's complaints were part of differences between the two men.

"We don't always agree, but I am not attacking Jeff Meyer," Dutton said.

Any issues the association voted as dead issues "will be dead for the next two years," Dutton said.

"A lot of people are under the impression me and Bobby are butting heads," Meyer said. "I didn't know what to expect coming in here tonight."

Lang, who was one of a half dozen members of the command staff present, praised Meyer for addressing the group.

"We have never had a chief come in here and do what he has done tonight," Lang said.