City fire crew adds 2, but tensions still smolder

YOUNGSTOWN — City firefighters added two members to their ranks Friday — one to help them fight fires and another to help them prevent fires. They said it’s one step in the right direction, but many more steps are needed.

Mayor Jamael Tito Brown swore in newly-minted firefighter Ross Kollar and veteran fire inspector Abigail Buday at a ceremony Friday morning at the Youngstown Fire Department headquarters on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Kollar, of Canfield, grew up on the city’s West Side, and said he is excited to serve his hometown.

“Being that I grew up here, I’m really looking forward to serving the city I grew up in, the city I call home,” he said. “And I want to make my family proud. I have five kids, and my wife, Amanda, and I want to make them proud.”

Kollar has joined the department’s B Turn and began his first shift at 8 a.m. Saturday.

Buday is a Warren native who now lives in Poland and still serves as lead fire inspector for the Western Reserve Joint Fire District. She also just left Liberty Township Fire Department, where she served as an inspector since 2015, leaving as a lieutenant.

“I just needed something different,” she said. “(Youngstown) is a bigger department than I’m used to, and I’m looking forward to all the opportunities a bigger department offers.”

Fire Chief Barry Finley said Kollar’s hiring brings B Turn to 38 firefighters, while Turns A and C have 37 each. He said Kollar will work in the fire suppression division.


John Racco, president of the Youngstown Professional Firefighters Local 312 union, said Kollar is a welcome addition, but the department remains woefully understaffed.

“It’s up to the city to properly staff the department and ensure the safety of residents by having an adequate fire department,” he said. “It seems they are now taking steps to remedy the problem with some hiring, but it’s just not enough.”

Racco said the department only has 117 members, at least five to 10 fewer than are needed. In 2008, he said Youngstown had 138 bargaining unit members, but that number dropped to 127 by the end of 2017, and has continued downward since.

“It’s been mostly through attrition, retirement for some guys and other people leaving for other jobs,” Racco said. “And for a long time, the city was not replacing anybody.”

The lack of personnel has led to rotating closures of local fire stations, including some engine and ladder trucks downtown. Closed stations can mean delayed response times to fire calls.

Racco said the department closed stations 154 times in 2023, and the union’s Facebook — which Racco said is accurate — marked at least 12 station closures since January.

According to the union, the most recent closure was the McGuffey Road station on April 5 and 6 (8 a.m. to 8 a.m.). Engine 7 downtown also closed twice that week. On March 16 and 17, Station 6 on Shehy Avenue and McCartney Road was closed and also was closed March 7 and 8. On March 6 and 7, it was Station 15 on McCollum Road. On Feb. 17 and 18, Station 3 on Belle Vista and Engine 7 downtown were closed. Engine 7 also closed on Feb 14. Station 4 on McGuffey Road closed on Feb. 4 and 5. On Jan. 28, it was Station 12, on the East Side, and Ladder 22 downtown and Rescue 3 on Belle Vista closed Jan. 13.

The closures have created high tension between the firefighters and administrators.

Both sides agree that the problem comes down to a lack of personnel on given shifts if firefighters need to call in sick. Where they differ is on the matter of why the shifts are left shorthanded, sometimes forcing stations to close.

Racco and FInley both said a shift — or turn — needs 29 firefighters to ensure stations remain open, because three personnel are required to operate a truck. If one person calls off, and there is nobody to cover them on that truck, the station cannot operate.

Both men also said each shift is assigned about 37 men — B Turn now has 38 with Kollar – but at any given time, firefighters may be out on vacation, for injury from a fire, for Kelly days, or other reasons.

Kelly days are times when firefighters must be off after working a certain number of hours, regardless of when their schedule says they are assigned to work.

“There’s only two ways to overcome the problem,” Racco said, “hire people or pay overtime to existing employees to cover the shifts. If you do nothing, stations will close. The chief does not get enough money in his overtime budget to pay for the staffing he needs.”

Racco and the union have questioned why the fire department’s overtime budget for 2023 was only $300,000 compared with the police department’s overtime budget of $2 million.

Finley said he does not want to burden city taxpayers by paying unnecessary overtime when the department cannot be sure the firefighters’ call-offs are legitimate.

“We have two guys on active military duty and one out on injury from a fire, and I’ll pay overtime to cover that,” Finley said. Regular sick calls, though, he said, are a different story. “Legally, you can’t ask, and there’s no way to know.”

FInley said firefighters do not have to call a commanding officer, but just notify the 911 dispatch center, which sends an email to the battalion chief for that shift. He said the battalion chief arrives at 7 a.m. and only has one hour to assess the staffing situation for the day.

FInley said he tried to use logic from his military experience and take a hands-off approach, hoping lieutenants and fellow firefighters would apply social pressure.

“You could say I screwed up, I guess,” he said, “because that doesn’t work as well as it did in the military.”

He said his policy now is that the youngest person to call off is the one whose truck is shut down for the day, and other firefighters fill in accordingly.

Racco said Finley’s policies and practices are vindictive.

“We’re not talking about people abusing sick time,” he said. “We’re talking about people that have been sick, got hurt on the job, or they have sick family members, sick children.”

He said the practice is just short of a violation of the union’s contract, and said the members take it personally.

“Sick leave is a contractual benefit, earned by working,” he said. “What we take this as, when they say it’s just us calling off, and what the fire chief seems like he’s doing by not keeping the stations open, he’s punishing us for using contractual benefits.The fire chief vindictively is retaliating against firefighters for using sick time and putting people’s safety at risk by doing that.”

Racco said he and his colleagues just want the city’s support to provide proper service.

“I know the heart of our firefighters,” he said. “They’re a unique group of people, they take the job very seriously, and want to do a good job. This city doesn’t give us what we need and then turns around and blames us for it. It’s just a shame. For a city that’s in its best financial health in years, to be vindictive by not staffing the department properly just to prove a point, that’s wrong.”

Racco said increasing the department’s staff to between 122 and 127 firefighters would “probably almost eliminate station closures.”

Calls made Friday to Mayor Jamael Tito Brown and City Council President Tom Hetrick were not returned.

Have an interesting story? Contact Dan Pompili at dompili@vindy.com


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