Oh, the outrage! City Auditor investigates Portland firefighters washing their cars

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By COLIN STAUB

It all started with a car wash. But it could end in union bargaining.

Last June, a Portland firefighter was spotted using city resources for personal gain while on the clock. His offense? Washing his car during downtime on a 24-hour shift. A tipster dutifully informed the City Auditor’s Fraud Hotline, which investigated the matter and published a report Jan. 6 finding that the car had indeed been washed on the taxpayer dime, and that the Portland Fire Bureau had allowed it.

Fire Bureau management responded to the audit saying car washing by firefighters is an entrenched and broadly accepted practice, and promised to draft a policy clarifying what constitutes personal use of city resources. On Jan. 6, a memo from Fire Chief Sara Boone declared such car washing to be unlawful, and ordered firefighters to cease and desist. 

Not so fast, said Portland Fire Fighters’ Association, IAFF Local 43. Local 43 freely acknowledges some firefighters wash their personal vehicles during downtime or at the end of their shifts. After the stress of working 24 hours straight—or more—it helps workers unwind. But it’s infrequent, not something every firefighter does, the union says. 

“The fire house is truly our ‘home away from home’ and firefighters take a lot of pride in our work, our fire house and our apparatus,” Local 43 president Isaac McLennan wrote to the chief Jan. 19. “Indeed, as you know, firefighters do the vast majority of maintenance and cleaning at our fire houses (unlike any other city employee or workgroup), including landscaping, cleaning the gutters, window washing, and thorough housekeeping. This same pride extends to our personal vehicles.”

But to the point, Local 43 says the past practice of allowing carwashing constitutes a status quo that must be maintained unless the city negotiates. 

“Where does the City draw the line on what is considered ‘city resources?’” the union wrote in a memo to members.  “Do city employees pay for the microwaves and the electricity to reheat their lunch? Where is the microwave agreement? What about city employees who shower after riding their bike to work? Who pays for the water and soap?”

“As the bureau has recognized, the existing well-established practice has been to allow firefighters to use bureau equipment and facilities during their down-time, so long as it does not interfere with their job duties,” union president McLennan wrote to Boone. Local 43 has asked the chief to rescind the cease and desist order. 

5 COMMENTS

  1. I’m a tax-payer and I think this whole thing is absolute BS- My friend’s husband is a Firefighter and I’m very aware of the 24hr shifts, the fact that meals are prepared like home in the kitchen, etc… The point being that the Station is like their home as they spend so much time there. These men/women go out and risk their lives in service to us whether the people involved are paying taxes or not! That this “concerned person” actually felt the need to report said car-washing is beyond my comprehension! Obviously the firefighter was on down-time or he/she would have been gearing up to go out and risk their life, or washing the truck, or whatever other duties needed to be done! To drive by and automatically think this person was somehow shirking their duties, to wash their vehicle is CRAZY.

  2. I’m speechless….but I will give it a try….I love firefighters….I’m a taxpayer and you may use my taxmoney for anything you wish….kimm breedlove pdx

  3. Unbelievable! Speaking of wasting taxpayer resources…the city auditors need to be using their taxpayer-paid time to investigate more appropriate matters! Leave our hard-working first responders alone!

  4. Why don’t we discuss real issues like the use of city cars that most managers use to drive back and forth to work. That’s tax payer money. The firefighters should have more benefits. It’s only a physical exercise keeping them in shape and showing pride in their cars like they do in their equipment. Look at Time wasted by City workers during their 8 hours of work. Now that’s a waste of taxpayers money!!!!

  5. How much are we talking here? Maybe $.50 for the resources? Equipment (tools etc) used, to maintain the apparatus, is not provided by the city, but instead by the firefighters in each house. Sounds like there is a lot of give and take that the Chief had forgotten about when she made her statement.

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