The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) is improving internal operations and tackling historic issues like working conditions and retirement and the emerging threats of wildfire response, cancer, and behavioral health.
General President Edward Kelly, in his keynote address to the 56th IAFF Convention in Ottawa, Canada said the union and its leaders “have traversed some tough terrain” in its 104-year history, from strikes and two world wars to pandemics and riots. But, “they never failed to see the merit of the Maltese Cross that symbolizes this profession.”
Before nearly 2,000 delegates, alternates, and guests assembled at the Shaw Centre in Downtown Ottawa, General President Kelly said the future of the IAFF remains strong thanks to the generations of leaders that built the union, and the dedication of current affiliate leaders and headquarters staff.
“The future of our union is bright, and we have some important strategic goals. We also have some internal cleaning up to do,” General President Kelly said. “Mistakes will happen, but you can’t hide them. We have to be transparent because our members demand answers, and they want to make sure this union is working for them and their families.”
Kelly noted that positive changes were already taking place providing more transparency and engagement regarding the IAFF’s leadership pension, its relationship with the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), and the IAFF Foundation. Kelly said the International is taking steps to make Convention business more accessible to the many affiliates that are small and cannot afford to travel to attend the essential biennial meetings.
Kelly told the audience he has seen a “pivot” in a positive direction regarding affiliate collective bargaining efforts, particularly in parts of the country historically hostile to labor. He cited South Fulton Professional Fire Fighters Local 3920 signing the first IAFF affiliate collective bargaining agreement ever in the state of Georgia and Chattanooga, Tennessee Local 820 which won 24 percent raises for most of its members. He also praised Virginia affiliates for bringing collective bargaining to the state.
“Our first ask is always about safety, staffing, training, and the right equipment to conduct rescues. Collective bargaining is our voice in public safety, and it is also about protecting our communities,” Kelly said.
Numerous affiliates have reported major challenges in recruiting new members following the massive recession of 2008-2009, and the years of budget tightening that followed. Kelly said many fire departments in places like Michigan, which saw extreme budget cuts, have been training fire fighters only to lose then eventually to better paying departments elsewhere.
“For the first time ever recruiting is becoming a real challenge for the fire service, along with forced overtime,” said Kelly, adding that the IAFF is pursuing federal grants to establish an apprenticeship program “so that we can reach out and bring new fire fighters into the profession.”
Turning to the issue of wildfires, which have been occupying the shifts of a growing number of IAFF affiliates, Kelly said he spoke in person with President Joseph Biden and Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer, telling the President the nation “has been asleep at the switch when it comes to the threat of wildfires to urban areas and what that means to the IAFF.”
Praising President Biden for his commitment to fire fighter issues, Kelly told the President that the United States must begin training all of its fire fighters in wildland fire fighting “so we can be ready when it reaches us, because we die in dozens when things go wrong in the wildland.”
Kelly noted with pride the strides the International has made in behavioral health, from the IAFF Center of Excellence (COE) for Behavioral Health and Recovery just outside of Washington, D.C. to the second COE slated for opening in California next year, and the new collaboration with Edgewood Health Network (EHN) to begin providing expect behavioral health care to Canadian members.
Citing a frequent refrain that “the work of a fire fighters always begins in front of a church,” Kelly said spirituality has played an important role in his professional and personal life. “When we think of behavioral health, we do not always talk about spiritual health … but we need to rethink how we are doing a lot of things, and sometimes gifts fall into your lap.”
Regarding occupational cancer, among the top priorities of the IAFF, Kelly updated assembled delegates and alternates of the new alliances and new hires made by the International to help fight against the leading cause of death among IAFF members.
This spring, the IAFF announced that Dr. Danny Whu, M.D., MPH was appointed as the organization’s first Chief Medical Officer, joining the leadership team to spearhead all facets of the Health, Safety and Medicine Division. Last year, the IAFF brought on Dr. Derek Urwin, Ph.D., member of Los Angeles County fire Fighters Local 1014, as the IAFF’s Chief Science Advisor.
The IAFF last year entered into an historic alliance with the American Cancer Society (ACS) to begin collaborating on research and other resources to help fight occupational cancer. “We are building a team where we have people who can speak the language of the scientific and medical community. They speak our language, and also know what it’s like to bury a friend on the job,” Kelly said.
In closing, Kelly cited a troubling legal battle taking place in Lubbock, Texas, where pension opponents are trying to strip retirement security from the widow of Jay Watson, member of Lubbock Local 972 who died of occupation cancer at age 55.