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Rochester's deputy mayor defends controversial firefighter policy

Jul 9, 2019

Rochester's Deputy Mayor James Smith takes questions about the the city's "dynamic staffing" policy at the Lyell Avenue Library.
Credit James Brown WXXI

A Rochester firefighters union held a public input session Monday evening about the recently implemented changes in staffing at its firehouses.

Deputy Mayor James Smith took questions from concerned residents at the Lyell Avenue Library for nearly an hour and a half. They didn’t hold back.

"This is a community issue, and we’re really all united on this in support of our firefighters,” said Colleen McCarthy from the Lock 66 neighborhood off Monroe Avenue. She said dynamic staffing, which allows the fire chief to temporarily close a firehouse because of low staffing, could have unintended consequences.

“If your firehouse is closed, someone comes from another neighborhood, which potentially makes that geographic area more vulnerable,” McCarthy said.
 
Rochester resident Tina Lauk has similar concerns. She sparred with Smith about the city not being supportive enough of firefighters.
 

Lock 66 neighborhood leader Colleen McCarthy questions the city's fiscal choices.
Credit James Brown WXXI

"Are you a firefighter?" Lauk asked Smith.

"Ma’am, you know I’m not," Smith replied. "You know I’m not."

"I know that you’re not, Mr. Smith," Lauk said. "You don’t know what they go through. You’re not the one that’s trying to help save people’s lives when they’re in a fire."
 
Another resident challenged Smith to see things as a resident instead of a politician. Smith said he's had a fire where he lives within the last two years, and he was "very pleased" with the Rochester Fire Department's quick response.

"But what if they weren’t able to respond quickly?" the resident asked. 

"I believe they will be able to continue to respond quickly," Smith said. 
 
Smith told the crowd that the new staffing model could prevent a more unpleasant situation.
 
“This was not my first choice,” said Smith. “I don’t believe this is the mayor’s first choice or the fire chief’s first choice. This is what we came up with not to make the mistakes of the past … when 40 firefighters were laid off.”
 
Smith says dynamic staffing could save the city about $1.3 million per year. He says the only way around the issue is to negotiate with all of  the city’s unions about using the city's contributions to their health care reserve fund for this purpose. Firefighters Union Vice President Amy Ruffo said that’s easier said than done.