Police, Firefighter Unions Talk Priority Bills Signed By Scott, Special Session Priorities

May 29, 2015

Governor Rick Scott recently gave the nod to several priorities of the state’s first responder unions. Now, those unions are speaking out on what they’d like Florida lawmakers to include in the still-to-be-considered state budget.

Jim Tolley, the Florida Professional Firefighters’ President, says he’s happy the Governor signed a measure into law clearing up a loophole by making it illegal to impersonate a firefighter.

“It was something that no one had considered back in the day,” said Tolley. “There was a lot of language about false impersonation of law enforcement for various reasons. But, firefighters were never a big issue until Homeland Security tightened up access to a lot of buildings. And, someone kind of figured out that they could get an old fire truck and come up with lights and sirens and then would get waived right on through the checkpoint.”

He says people were either stealing the trucks or buying old ones from auctions. Still, there was no provision in law against using the fire trucks for unlawful purposes.

“When people had gained access to property, but had not done wrong yet, there was no punishment because it wasn’t illegal to run through the checkpoint, or getting waived through,” added Tolley. “So, they closed that up, made it punishable, but clearly defined that as for malicious reasons or for unlawful reasons.”

Tolley says he’s also glad the Governor did the right thing in approving a plan to reform a troubled local pension program affecting mainly police officers and firefighters.

“Obviously, the municipal pension reform bill we’ve been working on for many years,” continued Tolley. “The key issue there is making sure that those are well-funded and sustainable for the long-term. That bill took a lot of work to get it to where it was a couple years ago. It was coupled with another bill that caused it to die.”

And, Florida Police Benevolent Association’s Executive Director Matt Puckett agrees.

“So, this is a big step,” said Puckett. “I think it’s a big step for the taxpayers. I think it’s a great step for cities and police officers who work in those cities.”

Puckett also applauds the Governor for signing a bill into law making it illegal for law enforcement to write a certain number of speeding tickets. He’s also grateful another FPBA priority got signed providing a public records exemption for body camera recordings done by law enforcement.

“Body cameras are here to stay,” he added. “They will become part of the equipment that law enforcement officers wear in the future. And, we just think you have to contemplate the privacy concerns that this footage will pick up in the future. We think it’s a good first step. And, will probably be back next year and the coming years making tweaks to not only just that, but to policy and other issues that body cameras will require us to do.”

And, he says he’ll be back next year to revive a bill that died amidst the budget impasse between the House and Senate over healthcare funding: a measure making sure law enforcement agencies using the body cameras have set guidelines in place.

For now, though, Puckett says he’s focused on the upcoming special session as lawmakers work out a budget. That includes collective bargaining issues and pay raises.

“It seems like this year pay raises are probably going to be difficult to achieve,” Puckett continued. “But, there are some other issues that the House and Senate are looking at that may be some benefits for state employees that we’re interested in, and we’re going to be at the table and we’re going to be involved in the special session. And, we’ll see what comes of it.”

As for Tolley, he says he too will be advocating similar issues on behalf of firefighters across the state.

“We’re watching some of our state forestry firefighters’ salary and watching very closely any legislation that deals with cancer presumption—it’s become a hot button issue all across the state—and possible funding for cancer research, specifically certain types of cancer found in firefighters in much higher numbers than the average person,” said Tolley.

The special session is scheduled to start Monday afternoon.

For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.