WALB Investigates: 30 years of inequity, Albany firefighters demand fair pay

Published: Jun. 3, 2021 at 10:13 PM EDT
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ALBANY, Ga. (WALB) - Albany firefighters are trying to rectify decades of pay issues.

Unequal pay claims and limited efforts to fix them lead to fewer employees and poor morale. That’s the concern of those representing Albany’s firefighters. They said their current situation is detrimental to the community.

When a fire starts in your home, you may only have minutes to escape as the blaze builds and firefighters leap into action.

Those unsung heroes show up at a moment’s notice and put their lives on the line to protect our communities. But what happens when there aren’t enough firefighters to come to the rescue?

It’s a very possible problem that’s becoming a reality in Albany and it centers around pay.

“You have supervisors who are making less than their subordinates on a broad spectrum. It’s not just an isolated incident, it’s a systemic problem,” said Ronnie Pettiford, the president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Albany Union.

Pettiford said the current system used to evaluate firefighters and set their pay rate is simply broken.

Fire Fighter Union President Ronnie Pettiford (right) and VIce President Charles Howe (left)...
Fire Fighter Union President Ronnie Pettiford (right) and VIce President Charles Howe (left) discuss pay inequities.(WALB)

Charles Howe, who is a veteran firefighter and the vice president of the union, said it prompts new recruits to stay at their current level, leading to a lack of leadership.

“That directly ties to people within the Albany Fire Department not wanting to go up for promotions. That’s a major issue right now. We’ve had several cases where people ended up making more money and were sharing this information with other members that, ‘Hey, if we don’t go up for promotion, there’s a good chance you’ll make more than the guy that does in the near future.’ And we’ve had that happen in several cases,” explained Howe.

James Gibney is a union representative and former Albany firefighter, he said that in his experience, the Albany Fire Department currently operates under a system that enables “pay compression.”

James Gibney is a union representative and former Albany firefighter.
James Gibney is a union representative and former Albany firefighter.(WALB)

“You do a pay study and you reveal that your firefighters should be making more. That’s your first-rank firefighter. Well, if you say they should make three percent more, you adjust the entire scale up three percent,” said Gibney. “Well, now you’ve maintained the integrity of the scale, the integrity of the ranks and everybody’s efforts and promotion and what they’ve put in to get there. But when you just move the firefighters up, you’ve skewed the whole thing so they’re going to start passing people along their journey.”

WALB Investigates uncovered complaints filed in 2018 from 43 Albany firefighters asking the city to fix the issue. One includes a complaint from 2010, another cites a manager asking a firefighter to withdraw his complaint.

A number of grievances were filed that WALB obtained copies of. Click each link to read each one.
- Grievance No. 1
- Grievance No. 2
- Grievance No. 3
- Grievance No. 4
- Grievance No. 5
- Grievance No. 6
- Grievance No. 7
- Grievance No. 8
- Grievance No. 9

Several other cases reference a 2015 claim where the firefighter’s pay was adjusted. Despite the city’s decision then, in each case we uncovered, the firefighters who complained got the same response from the city.

“Our office did not find any support for alleged inequity or for alleged pay disparity. For these reasons, we are closing the file. This complaint/grievance is considered closed,” the responses read.

“They were told there was no inequity. We didn’t hear anything after that,” said Gibney.

The union said unfair standards lead to low retention rates at the department and eventually, poor protection for the community.

“Imagine your house is on fire, and the fire truck pulls up and the firefighters are standing in the yard because we don’t have enough personnel to actually go in,” said Pettiford.

Pettiford is referring to the “two in, two out” rule. When two firefighters go into a burning building, two others must stay outside as backup in case anything happens.

“Well, if we get on scene, and we only have three people on a truck, we can’t adhere to that rule, so we have to stand in the yard. And you know, monitor the situation until another truck arrives,” explained Pettiford.

While they’re waiting on backup from another station, Pettiford said the fire can double in size several times over. It can go unchecked during a time when every second counts.

Union members told WALB News 10 that last week the city offered the department a choice, a 2.5 percent raise or to fix the pay scale. About two-thirds of the department voted to fix the scale. However, there is no official plan to move forward yet.

In 2019, a group of city firefighters, finance and human resource employees created a panel to review and address the pay problem.

Union members said those recommendations were essentially ignored. They were not allowed to present their findings to the city manager or city council.

Interview requests for Mayor Bo Dorough and the Interim City Manager Steven Carter did not receive a response.

In response to an interview request on pay inequity for Fire Chief Cedric Scott, a spokesperson said:

“After taking your request into consideration, it has been determined that it would not be appropriate for the Fire Department Chief to speak on pay inequity concerns. The matter does not fall within the realm of the position’s authority or control.”

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