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Firefighters join union ranks

"Having voted to unionize, local firefighters will soon begin negotiating a formal contract with the Bainbridge Island Fire Department.The written agreement will codify standards for wages, working conditions, hours and benefits between the department and the new union chapter, Local 4034 of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). (Joining a union) is kind of an industry standard, said Local 4034's president, Bainbridge firefighter Greg Borgen. If your call volume goes up, it's not too far behind that the union is going to come in.The executive director of the fire department, Ken Guy, agreed that the growth of the department made the move labor organization.This is part of a natural evolution, Guy said, noting that Bainbridge has until now had the only non-unionized fire department in Kitsap County.Ten of the department's 11 eligible employees have joined the new chapter of the IAFF, which has more than 225,000 members nationwide. Founded in 1918, the AFL-CIO-affiliated union has advocated for improved levels of staff training, stricter on-the-job safety regulations, and disability laws to protect firefighters injured in the line of duty.Everything that we've heard of the IAFF is that it's a great organization, said island firefighter Mark Hannon.Before the new Bainbridge chapter begins negotiations, members are waiting for government approval of the group as a collective bargaining unit.The state Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) is currently reviewing the new union local to determine what present and future department positions can constitute bargaining units.Union members said PERC will divide the local chapter into two such groups, one for non-uniformed, administrative employees and another for uniformed personnel, such as firefighters and paramedics.Currently, the Bainbridge department contracts paramedics from the Medic One outfit in Seattle. The department will soon hire two of its own paramedics, but has been waiting for PERC to establish the collective bargaining units.Members of the Local 4034 said they have not yet discussed specific labor issues they would like to address as a union, but having a written contract with the fire department should be an important step towards peace of mind and job security.The contract negotiations, which should begin in a few months, are hoped to improve communication between workers and managers, Hannon said.In the past there hasn't been a lot of dialogue, he said. Hopefully that will change.In the best scenario, contract negotiations will go quickly, union members agreed. How fast it goes really depends on the administration, Hannon said. If they bargain in good faith, then we'll bargain in good faith, and we hope it goes smooth.The unionization of the department should not impact normal operations, Guy said.I don't think it will have a dramatic impact on the department, he said.With nine paid responders and 60 volunteer firefighters, the Bainbridge fire department still relies heavily upon support from the community. Union members said they don't want that to change.This in no way is to try to hurt the volunteer system, Hannon said. Everybody in our local has started as a volunteer, appreciates the volunteers, and wants the volunteer system to continue on Bainbridge Island.The union negotiations will not address volunteer labor issues, Guy said, adding, however, that the fire department did recently decide to supplement a long-term disability program for volunteers. The money will help compensate for lost wages due to injuries on the job."

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