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State probing East Chicago firefighter safety concerns

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File Photo East Chicago FD

This Times file photo shows East Chicago Fire Department and Superior EMS staff working at a crash scene.

EAST CHICAGO — The firefighters' labor dispute with the mayor has prompted a state inquiry into potential safety violations.

The Indiana Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted a safety compliance inspection of the East Chicago Fire Department last month.

The IOSHA website indicates it conducted an inspection of the fire department June 15 over the issue of “fire protection.”

Dave Mata, president of the East Chicago Professional Firefighters Local 365, said state inspectors are looking into whether the department is dangerously short-staffed.

Mata said the department has lost so many employees in recent months the city is down to 41 active firefighters and 11 administrators and support staff.

He said the city’s budget is set for 76 employees and has been as large as 90 employees under prior mayoral administrations.

“We’ve never been this short in my 20 years,” Mata said.

He learned in mid-June someone made an anonymous complaint with IOSHA that the city violates a state policy requiring the department to deploy enough firefighters to a fire scene so that some can remain outside the danger zone in case firefighters inside a burning building need assistance.

Mata said too often there aren’t enough firefighters on a shift or they are too far away to provide such backup, since the city has had to idle one of its fire stations because of the manpower shortage.

He said he doesn’t know the status of the IOSHA inquiry, but he said he wouldn’t be surprised if the state found more such safety violations.

Mayor Anthony Copeland couldn’t be reached last week for comment.

Mata said nine city firefighters either are preparing to leave the department or have already done so for jobs in Hammond or out-of-state communities.

He said the city is trying to train new replacements, but that is a time-consuming process that cannot keep up with the departures.

Mata blames the discontent on the lack of a labor contract and the mayor’s imposition of a work schedule that forces firefighters to work more days and have less time with family.

Two years ago, the mayor scrapped a longstanding shift schedule of 24 hours on duty and 48 hours off duty.

The mayor replaced it with a schedule of three days on duty of rotating among morning, afternoon and overnight periods before an individual gets the following 24 hours off.

The firefighters union sued the city in U.S. District Court in Hammond in May alleging the workday changes are the mayor’s retribution for firefighters supporting his political opponent during the 2019 election year.

Copeland has previously denied he is punishing the union.

Copeland, a former city firefighter himself, has said the new work schedule reduces firefighters' overtime pay claims.

He said it is part of his overall mission of fiscal responsibility and budgetary constraint that has taken the city from deficit spending to surpluses since he took office in 2010.

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