Memphis officials grappling with protests by police, firefighters over higher insurance costs

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MEMPHIS, Tennessee — There should have been 10 firefighters on duty during a weekend shift at one of Memphis' 56 fire stations, but only six were working — and some of those were fill-ins for regulars who called in sick.

The station was one of four that had its ladder truck idled for the day so its four firefighters could be spread around to help with manpower shortages caused by a so-called "Red Rash" work stopped, The Commercial Appeal ( reported.

The city's firefighters and police recently began calling in sick to protest recent budget cuts that raised insurance costs for city employees.

On Saturday, 80 firefighters claimed to be too sick to work, up from 68 on Friday, the newspaper reported.

At the same time, the number of police officers calling in sick declined to 348, it said.

That uptick among firefighters had city and fire department leaders concerned Saturday.

"I'm disappointed, I'll be honest with you. I'm not yet alarmed, but I'm more concerned than I was three days ago," Memphis Fire Department Director Alvin Benson said, adding that he sent people to make certain those who called in sick were actually at home, but found no one breaking the rules.

To handle so many officers calling in sick Saturday, Benson authorized overtime at an estimated cost of as much as $50,000.

"The same number of people on the streets today is the same as yesterday, but it took overtime to accomplish that," he said. "But as you can imagine, we can't sustain that over the long-term."

Benson also said that idling four ladder trucks was the most he could do without impacting public safety. To determine which trucks are idled, or "browned out," Benson said they look at call rates as well as other data.

"We don't want stations in proximity to each other to be browned out at the same time," he said. "We want to spread the risk through the community as much as we can. There are areas where we can't brown out at all. The risks are just too great."

Benson worried that any continuation of the "Red Rash" could affect the public's view of his department.

"I just hope that confidence in the department has not been eroded," he said. "Things like this, in my view, don't help us maintain the respect that we've earned over the years with the people in the community."

Information from: The Commercial Appeal,

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