Firefighters take battle with Rory Reid to voters


Firefighter Karl Kendrick and fire captains Mike Hutcherson and Mario Romo trudged door to door in southwest Las Vegas under a blazing, late-morning sun to make a case for putting two high-level units of the Clark County Fire Department back into service.

The three men were among about 50 union firefighters knocking on doors and hanging fliers, despite triple-digit temperatures, in an effort to turn up the political heat on Rory Reid, the chairman of the Clark County Commission and Democratic candidate for governor of Nevada.

"This choice, which was made by Commissioner Reid, was a bad choice," said Kendrick, a firefighter-paramedic.

Kendrick and the others say they didn't set out to undermine Reid's gubernatorial campaign, but the dispute between a Democratic candidate and a high-profile union was the reason the door-knocking effort is making headlines and news highlights around Las Vegas.

The firefighters blame Reid for cutbacks that eliminated a heavy rescue unit and a hazardous materials team, cuts they say jeopardize public safety.

Reid and the other commissioners stand behind the cuts and accuse the firefighters of using fear tactics in an effort to preserve unsustainable compensation levels for unionized firefighters in Clark County.

"It is disgraceful that he is getting away with that," Kendrick said.

Whether the firefighters will make a difference in the gubernatorial race between Reid and Republican Brian Sandoval remains to be seen.

Sandoval holds a double-digit lead according to statewide polls and several influential Nevada unions have endorsed Reid. The local firefighters union defers to the Professional Firefighters of Nevada for political endorsements in statewide races, and that group has yet to make an endorsement in the governor's race.

With public spending cuts taking a bite out of everything from education to parks and roads, and private employers laying off workers and cutting pay, it is hard for the firefighters, many of whom make six-figure salaries when overtime is included, to find a sympathetic audience.

"The firefighters seem to be oblivious to the current budget situation," said Eric Herzik, a professor of political science at University of Nevada, Reno. "And they've turned a good public image that they had into really the poster boys for, in a sense, public outrage about government."

The door-knocking effort was organized through the International Association of Firefighters Local 1908, the union for members of the Clark County Fire Department.

About 50 off-duty firefighters in yellow, union t-shirts walked residential streets around the area of Jones Boulevard, mostly between Tropicana Avenue and Patrick Lane.

The area is part of Reid's commission district and close to Fire Station 21, which had been home to the discontinued heavy rescue unit.

They hung fliers with the headline "Rory Reid's Threat" on doors and told residents they encountered that by eliminating one of two heavy rescue units in the Las Vegas Valley response times for critical extraction tools and expertise to accidents would increase from about three or four to more than 10 minutes.

"That's not a good thing," said resident Dawn Chambers.

"If it is your loved one that is inside you want someone there," she said, snapping her fingers.

Reid and fellow county commissioner Steve Sisolak not only dispute the firefighters' safety assertions, they accuse the group of using tactics of fear and intimidation to influence policy.

"We have a difficult economy, and just like families and businesses we need to find ways to tighten our belt," Reid said of the cutbacks, which county officials say will save more than $5 million in overtime costs.

"They are picking the fight with the wrong guy," Reid said.

Sisolak said the county commissioners share some blame for the unsustainable costs of the firefighter contracts, but added the current members of the commission are trying to chip away at an accumulation of raises, benefits and costly work rules that have built up over decades.

"We just simply can't afford it anymore," Sisolak said. "Maybe this is the first step toward trying to get this stuff in line."

The firefighters say Reid, Sisolak and county officials aren't being sincere in their arguments.

They say they have offered concessions in private negotiations. Sisolak counters the concessions come with strings that offset the savings.

Thomas Touchstone, vice president of the local firefighters union, said the cutback means the Las Vegas Valley is the largest metropolitan area in the country to rely on just one heavy rescue unit.

And he questioned why the county funded the two units in the first place if they weren't important to public safety.

"That would be like saying they were mismanaging the millions of dollars they were spending on these programs," Touchstone said.

Contact reporter Benjamin Spillman at bspillman@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3861.

 

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