The Pendleton Professional Firefighters, IAFF Local 2296, would have the residents and City Council believe their first - and only - concern is for the safety of firefighters and the community they serve. On the other hand, city leadership would have you believe safety is being served, but at a significant savings to taxpayers.

These are the issues dividing the firefighters and city management, who can't come to agreement on a "recall" policy for off-duty firefighter-paramedics. Neither position is entirely believable.

The situation boils down to this: When paramedics are transferring a patient to the Tri-Cities, that leaves four firefighter-paramedics on duty in Pendleton. Under an old system no longer used - but favored by firefighters - two off-duty personnel would be recalled to bring the on-duty staff back up to six. Those recalled personnel are paid overtime while sitting in the station awaiting an alarm or the return of staff from the Tri-Cities.

We believe firefighter-paramedics are honestly concerned about safety, but we don't think they are immune to the lure of overtime. So while maintaining overtime pay isn't their primary goal, it likely adds to their incentive in the debate over recall policy.

But that shouldn't stand in the way of seeing the situation for it is: Safety must come first and Pendleton city government should make it a top priority.

Firefighters tell us that if a fire breaks out in a home while two paramedics are delivering a patient to the Tri-Cities, the remaining four firefighters would not be able to directly attack the blaze inside the house. They'd stand outside and spray water through the windows. They wouldn't be allowed to enter the home until sufficient backup arrives. Worse, if someone was trapped inside the house, firefighters would attempt a rescue inside the home but without backup standing by in the event they find themselves in trouble.

The recall policy - the old one - would make that backup immediately available. That improves safety for the community and for the firefighter- paramedics.

How often would the backup actually be needed? Not often. Rarely, in fact. How often would the department have to pay overtime? Every time staff is recalled.

That's why city management isn't inclined to go back to the old policy.

But it brings up an important question. How much is safety worth? And that's where the city management's argument falls apart.

City Manager Larry Lehman says the city saves about $50,000 a year by avoiding the recalls. The firefighters union says it's more like $12,000. Either way, the extra expense would be money well spent to improve safety for firefighter-paramedics and to improve the response time for a direct assault on a structure fire.

Add to that the good news that Pendleton is growing. Plenty of moderate and high-end homes have been built in Pendleton recently and jobs will be added through the expansion of Keystone RV. All of this points to a higher likelihood that firefighter-paramedics will be called to duty.

Saving a buck is always a laudable goal, and city government should be commended for stressing efficiency. But in this case, it's gone a bit too far. The safety of public employees and the public itself is worth the extra cost of calling back off-duty personnel.

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