Over the 2½ years of Ben Zahn's tenure as mayor of Kenner, the city's Fire Department has been a recurring source of strife.
There was a protracted battle over Zahn's decision to suspend and then fire former Chief John Hellmers in 2017. In 2018, there were disputes with the state over relocating a fire station to widen a road to the new airport terminal. The city and the state eventually came to an agreement.
This month, a Jefferson Parish judge issued a temporary restraining order prohibiting the city from forcing any Fire Department employees to work shifts "out of class," or at a rank different from their own — generally one rank higher. The practice, which is common among fire departments, is used to fill shifts left vacant by people who are on vacation or sick leave.
Judge Danyelle Taylor of 24th Judicial District Court issued the restraining order May 15 in response to a suit filed by Kenner firefighter Brian Drumm, who has the rank of operator. Drumm said the city was forcing him to work shifts as a captain, a position that has greater responsibility and greater risk.
Drumm has taken and passed the captain's exam and is in line for a promotion, but he said in his suit that the Kenner Fire Department was over-employing the temporary shifts practice to avoid paying overtime to current captains or promoting others to the rank full-time.
Drumm alleged that he filled out forms to refuse future assignments to work as a captain, but that his wishes were ignored and he was put on the schedule to work as a captain several times after saying he didn't want to.
"The practice of the city of Kenner, wherein firefighters are required to work at higher classifications against their will, and including in positions in which they may not feel comfortable, in which they have not been trained, or in which they do not believe they are qualified to carry out the requisite responsibilities at the current time, places ... the public at great risk of harm," Drumm's motion for a restraining order says.
Michael Giarrusso, president of the Kenner firefighters union, said that working "out of class" has been going on in Kenner for the nearly three decades he has worked there. But it has gotten worse in recent years, he said.
"It's gotten to the point where they threaten people now," he said. "You have a lot of guys who are willing to work out of class. You have some people who do not want to do it."
Giarrusso said the responsibilities of an operator, who drives the truck and pumps water at a fire, are vastly different from those of a captain, who has command duties.
Some regular firefighters, Giarrusso said, had been asked to work dispatch shifts as well.
Since the restraining order was issued, several other firefighters have signed affidavits saying that department brass threatened to cancel previously approved vacations or furlough employees who aren't willing to work out of class. Those moves, the affidavits allege, were direct retaliation for Drumm's suit.
Zahn referred questions to City Attorney Ed Rapier, who said Kenner's practice is no different from that of any other fire department.
"The city, just as every other fire department throughout the country, relies on operators to work as substitute captains," he said.
Rapier noted that Drumm is on the list to be promoted to captain. He "says he's not qualified to work in that position?" Rapier asked. "He's passed the test."
Rapier laid the blame for the dispute on a few firefighters he said were trying to create problems and said that the city under Zahn has hired two dozen new firefighters. But sometimes, he said, shifts need to be filled.
"We can't run a truck without (a captain) on it," he said. And if no one is willing to work out of class, "the only option is to bring in people who were on leave."
A hearing on whether to continue or cancel the restraining order has been set for Tuesday.
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