New Orleans fire trucks pulled from Mardi Gras parade as labor fight continues
The order comes shortly after the department head announced the cancellation of firefighters' vacations until further notice
Ramon Antonio Vargas
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS — A longtime Mardi Gras tradition has ended, at least for now, because of the labor fight between New Orleans firefighters and Mayor LaToya Cantrell’s administration: the fire trucks that roll at the end of each Carnival parade.
Firefighters’ union president Aaron Mischler said Friday that fire truck crews have been instructed to conduct safety inspections on floats and flambeauxs before each parade — but then return to their stations to answer calls for service rather than trail the processions.
A screenshot of an email to various New Orleans Fire Department members from a deputy chief, which the union provided Friday, says that “there will be no rear unit at the end of any parade during this Mardi Gras season” by orders of Superintendent Tim McConnell.
Unveiled as the first of two major weekends of Carnival parades ramps up, the email doesn’t provide a reason for taking out what, for decades, has signified the end of a parade to the crowds.
But the switch comes as firefighters — protesting various labor grievances — are refusing voluntary overtime shifts which the city has relied on to patch over a staffing level that the administration claims is 60 firefighters short of the department’s authorized strength.
McConnell has said the union’s stance is forcing NOFD officials to come up with ways to ensure the city’s various stations are adequately staffed. But on Friday, he contended that it simply is safer to keep those pump trucks in service and responding to calls for service as opposed to stuck behind parades.
"Traditions are great, but this is about public safety," McConnell said.
Mischler and other union leaders countered that pulling the fire trucks out of the end of parades is a tacit admission that staffing issues at the department are extreme. They say another, which was announced in a directive Tuesday, was to cancel firefighters’ vacations and other leave indefinitely, with possibly few exceptions.
Firefighters will still be ensuring all floats have the required escape ladders and fire extinguishers aboard prior to each parade. And a phalanx of police officers and paramedics along the city’s parade routes will still be available to respond to medical emergencies and disturbances.
Yet Mischler said having a fire truck rolling along with parades can save precious minutes in the event of a float fire — which aren’t unheard of on vehicles covered in flammable papier-mache and lights — or a mishap associated with the flambeauxs, who wield open flames as part of the processions. Those trucks can also respond to blazes which may erupt at houses or businesses which are cut off from their usual stations by the crowds and street closures which accompany parades.
“This concerns me because … the (parade) unit would be able to respond quickly,” Mischler said. “Because of the crowds and difficulty of getting around the city during a parade, you want those elements in place.”
McConnell and Cantrell said it was a better practice to return pump trucks to stations after conducting safety inspections.
"They will be dispatched appropriately to adequately respond to emergencies," Cantrell said. "It protects us in a way we really haven't been before."
Friday's back-and-forth comes a week after the union met with members of Cantrell’s administration to demand changes to an overtime policy that they argue defers or denies them the pay they have earned.
Union leaders are also pushing for changes to other policies to address pensions, promotions and pay rates for off-duty details. But overtime has been a sticking point — union officials say members have had to work 90 or more hours a week to make up for understaffing.
McConnell has countered that some of the changes would cost nearly $5 million a year and can’t be granted immediately due to budget constraints.
Cantrell bristled at that price tag Friday, noting that her administration approved 10% pay raises in 2018 to firefighters and other city employees, who had gone a decade without such an increase.
"We will not be bullied," Cantrell said. "Love (firefighters), very accessible, always have been. But we have prepared to ensure visitors are safe during this entire Carnival season."
Mischler denies that his side's demands would immediately cost the city millions. He said the union merely wants the city to sign agreements to work the overtime changes into the 2021 budget, to propose pension changes to the state Legislature next year and to sign a contract with the union, which last had a contract in 2011.
The union is also seeking a temporary court injunction to block the city from enforcing vacation cancellations, a request which is set to be heard by a Civil District Court judge next week.
The directive targeted by the injunction also empowers the department to force firefighters to work overtime, which is typically only done in emergencies. But McConnell said he doesn’t expect needing to do that as long as firefighters showed up to their regular shifts, which the union says its members have committed to doing.
This post was updated to add comments from Cantrell and McConnell.
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