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Fire protection inspectors have been at the forefront of the FDNY’s growing battle against fires caused by lithium-ion batteries by responding to calls for potential violations of the fire code, inspecting businesses storing dozens of batteries and bringing in tens of thousands of dollars in fines for the city.
But the inspectors and their union leaders say that they are rarely recognized for their work, and that the FDNY and the city’s labor negotiators don’t view them as a uniformed force deserving of the same respect as other uniformed first responders.
“Credit normally gets directed to firefighters and the fire marshals but not to the fire inspectors, and we're a very integral team,” said Joseph Rogers, a deputy chief fire inspector who oversees a special investigative unit focused on lithium-ion battery fires. “It would be nice to get a little bit of recognition for it."
Rogers leads a team of seven inspectors who respond to tips from the public about potential violations of the city’s fire code surrounding lithium-ion batteries and the micro mobility devices they power. Fire inspectors "are leading the charge” on combating e-bike fires, he said.
Recognition could be helpful for the morale of younger inspectors who have just come into the job and who make less than firefighters and inspectors at the Department of Buildings, Rogers added. "Recognition has gotten better over the years but it's definitely not where it needs to be,” he said.
Raises lag behind other uniforms
“We’re just treated differently,” said Mike Reardon, vice president of DC 37’s Local 2507, which represents fire protection inspectors and EMS workers. “The fire department looks at us as civilians,” Reardon continued, who’s worked for the city for 41 years. “All our forms we fill out say 'civilian’ on it."
An FDNY spokesperson said the inspectors were “an integral part of public safety.”
“They are responsible for inspecting, preventing and educating the public on potential fire hazards, and we are deeply appreciative of the role they play in protecting lives and property,” the spokesperson said in an emailed comment.
EMS employees were granted uniform status in 2001 and fire protection inspectors got it in 2005, a distinction that mandates better bargaining benefits than civilian employees and typically brings improved wages. But Local 2507 leadership feel the city rarely recognizes their members’ proper status during bargaining and contend that their members receive lower raises in collective bargaining agreements than other uniformed employees, a consequence of the lack of recognition. "For years, they've been refusing to negotiate with us as a uniform service,” said Oren Barzilay, Local 2507’s president.
Each time the contract covering EMS workers and fire protection inspectors expires, the union negotiates an agreement after the citywide and civilian contracts have been signed, Barzilay said, on the same timeline as other unions representing uniformed employees. But the union leader argues that both EMS workers and fire protection inspectors, who bargain under the same ticket, usually receive raises 1 to 2 percent lower than firefighters and other uniformed employees in the city.
“They look at us as civilians and we've been getting civilian raises,” Barzilay said. Reardon’s and Barzilay’s frustrations are backed up by an investigation conducted by the federal Equal Employment and Opportunity Commission as part of a class-action discrimination lawsuit filed last year by Local 2507 on behalf of EMS workers, with the EEOC concluding that the city has “improperly treated and compensated EMS First Responders as civilians, when they are uniformed personnel.”
A basis in race?
The EEOC also found that the city discriminated against EMS workers on the basis of race and discrimination, a determination that forms the legal basis for EMS workers’ class-action lawsuit. Fire protection inspectors are also suing the city, alleging a racist pay disparity between them and inspectors at the Department of Buildings.
“We don’t get respect because we’re a predominantly minority group,” said Darryl Chalmers, a deputy chief fire inspector and the lead plaintiff of the fire inspector's lawsuit. “It’s our inspections that make sure building owners are doing the right thing and that’s what’s keeping the firefighters and the rest of the public safe.”
Regina Wilson, the president of the Vulcan Society, the fraternal organization of Black firefighters, agrees. "If the inspectors didn't do their job, we couldn’t do ours because we would be going into an environment that could kill us." Wilson said that, proportionately, the number of Black fire inspectors exceeds that of those in other FDNY titles, and added that they’re also the “most disrespected group in the department."
About 70 percent of fire inspectors are people of color and they make, on average, $9,000 less than inspectors at the DOB, who are predominantly white. "They don't get the respect that they deserve,” continued Wilson, a 23-year firefighter.
Barzilay said that recognizing his members’ uniformed status and their contributions to public safety is more important than ever as EMS workers contend with increased call volumes and inspectors take the lead on preventing lithium-ion fires. "Just acknowledging that we are a uniform force can go a long way to changing the morale of the rank and file,” Barzilay argued. “But they refuse to even do that."
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