NEW CUMBERLAND – Claiming the department is “critically understaffed,” Weirton firefighters are seeking an injunction to prevent the city from creating and filling the position of Public Safety Director.
Lieutenant and EMT James Brueck, who is president of IAFF Local 948, and the 22 members of the local filed the petition June 5 in Hancock Circuit Court against the City of Weirton and Weirton City Council member George E. Ash Jr.
In the petition, the firefighters say the city has about 19,000 residents in 19.2 square miles. But only a maximum of six firefighters work any shift. Half of the shifts are covered by five firefighters.
In April, the petition says the city failed to apply for a Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant that would have provided funding for five firefighters for three years.
Brueck spoke about the benefits of the grant at a previous meeting, but he says he was met with resistance by council members. Fire Chief Jerry Shumate also spoke at that meeting and talked about the “gross understaffing” of the department.
At an April 8 public meeting regarding an ordinance to change the schedule of firefighters, Ash said the reasoning behind the ordinance was Brueck’s comments on social media about safety and department staffing as well as Shumate’s comment at a council meeting that “people are going to die.”
Ash also told Shumate he needed to submit his resignation.
A few weeks later, council proposed the hiring of two additional firefighters and a switch from a 48-hour schedule to a 56-hour schedule. That would allow for an eight-man schedule with an eight-man minimum, according to the petition. The firefighters would be paid overtime after 53 hours instead of the current 48-hour threshold.
“The petitioner union members considered it to be a good start toward solving the problem, but not enough,” the petition states. “The respondent specifically required petitioner Brueck to cease and desist from commenting publicly about safety and staffing issues with the City of Weirton Fire Department.”
Then, on April 26, the city held a special council meeting regarding fire department employee matters. The meeting was conducted entirely in executive session, and no department heads were permitted to attend, according to the filing. The meeting was set to discuss the creation of the new position of Public Safety Director, an appointed position which would report directly to the mayor and supervise the fire chief.
“The new Public Safety Director will be the de facto fire chief, making the Public Safety Director subject to Civil Service Commission rules and regulations,” the petition states. “This new Public Safety Director is being unilaterally created to circumvent the civil service rules and to retaliate against the petitioner and all the members of Local 948 for publicly speaking about understaffing and safety issues created by the understaffing.”
Brueck also says he regularly has flushed the city’s fire hydrants, a duty that requires overtime. He says that request was denied this year in retaliation for his public comments about understaffing and safety concerns.
The petitioners seek to stop the city from creating and filling the new position of Public Safety Director and to stop the city from enacting the proposed ordinances regarding the firefighters’ compensation and working conditions.
The petitioners are being represented by Teresa Toriseva and Joshua D. Miller of Toriseva Law in Wheeling. The case has been assigned to Circuit Judge Jason Cuomo.
Hancock Circuit Court case number 19-P-25