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Wichita firefighters rally for higher pay during contract negotiations

Kylie Cameron
Several members of the Wichita Fire Department and supporters on Main Street Tuesday ahead of contract negotiations with the city.

Starting pay for a Wichita firefighter currently sits at $15.74 an hour – a cut from the $19.36 an hour they receive as a recruit.

Wichita firefighters, retirees and supporters lined up along the streets outside of City Hall on Tuesday morning while union representatives were inside for contract negotiations with the city.

Like previous years, the union – IAFF Local 135 – is asking for higher wages, which it said have fallen far behind comparable cities in the Midwest.

“It’s time,” union president Ted Bush said. “These professionals miss Christmases, and birthdays, and ball games to get there at the fire station.

“I think we have come to a critical point as far as the Wichita Fire Department’s concerned.”

Starting pay for a Wichita firefighter currently sits at $15.74 an hour – a cut from the $19.36 an hour they receive as a recruit.

“You go in, you do your training, then they put you on live fires and you’re making $15.74; to me, that’s an insult,” said Stephanie Yeager, the union’s business manager.

Yeager was a state representative when she got a call from Bush when the union began organizing. But what he didn’t know was that Yeager had lost a child to a fire in Mulvane years before.

At the time, Yeager said Mulvane’s Fire Department was a volunteer department. She said that’s why it’s important for those in the Wichita Fire Department to have higher pay.

“I adore Mulvane Fire, they did everything they could,” Yeager said.

“We’re looking at a fire department here (in Wichita) that … according to national standards, we’re at least 100 firefighters down.

“That means at some point, somebody in the city is going to run into what I ran into, and what we pay in taxes, what these guys are willing to do for you, there's no reason for it to have that kind of ending.”

Thomas Anderson, who retired from the department after 35 years, said it’s also a matter of public safety for firefighters to make a fair wage.

“The question has to be asked, ‘What’s important?’ ” Anderson said. “ ‘Is it your safety? ‘Is it the community’s safety?’ And right now, they don’t value safety of their citizens.”

With 11 years at the department as a firefighter, Tatyana Fuller said she makes just as much as her 18-year-old son who just graduated high school.

“I am proud of my 18-year-old son for making the same wage as me, but I think it's kind of sad that after 11 years, he and I both make $19 an hour,” said Fuller, who also has a bachelor's degree.

“I think that with all the trauma we deal with; we got all the calls that nobody wants to go on. I made an alarm one time where a woman got ran down by a train, coming to find out that was a friend of mine and we're gathering the pieces. So things like that, we should be compensated fairly.”

Other members from area unions, as well as members of the Wichita City Council, were also in attendance.

Elected officials like those who serve on the City Council do not participate in contract negotiations with the city’s unions.

The council will eventually sign off on that contract – which Wichita Mayor Brandon Whipple said needs to include higher wages.

“The very last meeting we had when it comes to the [Capital Improvement Program] there was actually a push to not build the needed and necessary fire stations and instead utilize those funds for, I think, a luxury lake somewhere,” Whipple said.

“In reality, we’ve got to get back to basics. We need to not only be supportive of our firefighters when it comes to wages, but also give them the equipment that they need, the fire stations that they need, so they could do what they do best and that's saving lives.”

The union’s contract expires in November.

Kylie Cameron (she/her) is a general assignment reporter for KMUW. Before KMUW, Kylie was a digital producer at KWCH, and served as editor in chief of The Sunflower at Wichita State. You can follow her on Twitter @bykyliecameron.