Portsmouth, VA Local 539 fire fighters were seeing their resources steadily dwindle, making it harder and harder to protect their community and stay safe on the job. That’s when Local 539 leaders decided to act by helping elect more fire fighter-friendly city council members and educating them on the issues. The strategy paid off and now fire department resources are increasing.

“Our members knew they could not continue doing more with less,” says 4th District Vice President Andrew Pantelis. “They developed a political action plan and worked tirelessly to see it through to victory. Now long-needed resources, such as more fire fighters and gear, are continuously being added.”

“I think the lesson from the last two years it that it is critical to be involved in local politics and to continually educate your local leaders on public safety issues,” says Local 539 President Kurt Detrick. “If you do that, you’ll
see real results.”

Until 2016, Portsmouth Local 539 had been relatively quiet when it came to local politics. The local did endorse candidates for local office, but they did not become heavily involved in the campaigns.But as 35 positions in a 207-member fire department remained unfilled, browned-out stations became more frequent and members had not received any wage increases in two years, the Portsmouth Fire Department began losing some of its most seasoned fire fighters to other departments, while the remaining fire fighters had to work overtime to keep the city protected.

“Not only did we want to keep our best in Portsmouth, but we also wanted to keep them safe on the job,” says Detrick. “We needed more friendly faces on the Portsmouth City Council, so we endorsed four council candidates, including past Local 539 President Nathan Clark.”

Local 539 got involved in all four of the campaigns using the IAFF gold and black to distribute campaign literature and partnering with various community organizations to educate the voters on public safety issues and the importance of electing Local 539’s endorsed candidates.

On Election Day, all four of the local’s endorsed candidates won their seats.

Since then, resources and benefits have been improving. One of the first acts for the city council was to approve a new pay and compensation plan for public safety employees. Since Local 539 fire fighters had only had two step raises over the last 8 years, they were the lowest paid in the region. WIth the new plan, Portsmouth fire fighters now have the third highest base pay.

The council also approved the reclassification of all full-time paramedics (represented by Local 539) from civilian to public safety employees, which made them eligible for the state’s line-of-duty death benefit.Over the course of the last year, the City has also hired 31 fire fighters and an academy class is graduating in May, bringing in more new fire fighters. With the second set of new fire fighters, fire department officials are hopeful the brownouts will stop.

In January 2018, the city council appropriated nearly $400,000 for the Portsmouth Fire Department to purchase a second set of turnout gear for every Local 539 member. The second set of turnout gear is critical to ensuring the health and safety of the members. “Right now, our members cannot wash their gear until the end of their shift, which can be a very long time if they work overtime,” explains Detrick.  “Now they will be able to decontaminate their dirty gear more often and reduce their risk of cancer.”