Posts Tagged Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant

Oak Lawn Fire Department news

Excerpts from the

Accepting a $1.35 million federal grant to hire seven firefighters might seem like a no-brainer for a municipality, but in Oak Lawn, where a rift between the village administration and its firefighters’ union has derailed contract negotiations in recent years, the decision isn’t so simple.

While the village board voted unanimously last week to accept the $1,347,952 Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant — with the support of both the village manager and the firefighters union president — it’s far from a done deal.

Because the three-year grant requires the village pick up 25 percent of the new hires’ cost for the first two years and 65 percent of the cost in the third year, Oak Lawn would be on the hook for more than $930,000 if it appointed the seven additional firefighters.

For that reason, the village manager said he would recommend aborting the grant, which the village still has the ability to cancel, if the administration is unable to come to some agreement with the union on certain economic issues in the coming months.

Village officials declined to say what specifically they sought from the union in contract negotiations outside of a way to reduce overtime costs, which have ballooned to nearly $3 million per year.

The steep overtime price tag is driven by reduced staffing levels, which have been shrinking for years and are down more than 30 percent since the early 2000s, union president Vince Griffin said.

The village administration still considers the department bloated, despite its reduced manpower, and would like to see additional downsizing through attrition as firefighters retire in the coming years.

In spite of those sentiments, the village manager supported accepting the SAFER grant and increasing staff levels by seven because it’s expected to allow the village to significantly reduce overtime costs at a discount. The village is under no obligation to retain the seven new hires after the grant expires in three years if doing so is not financially prudent, officials said.

“This is about business, not public safety,” the village manager said at the Sept. 12 board meeting. “There’s no public safety be enhanced by accepting this grant. It’s to reduce overtime, stop hemorrhaging of the budget.”

A white paper authored by Fire Chief George Sheets estimates that to break even on the village’s $933,436 outlay, the department would need to reduce overtime by 710 work days over the next three years.

By Sheets’ calculations, the addition of seven firefighters would generate 700 extra work days per fiscal year, or 2,100 over the three-year lifespan of the grant.

Any additional savings beyond the $933,436 would be put toward the department’s long-term pension liabilities, officials said.

He would not say how much savings he anticipates realizing by accepting the grant and appointing additional firefighters, but made clear that simply breaking even —saving just enough to pay off the village’s $933,436 obligation but no more — was not sufficient.

Two factors that could impact the village’s savings are the pace of future retirements and the amount of time off firefighters request.

Even if the department gains seven new firefighters initially, as older firefighters retire — at least seven will be eligible to do so within the next three years — staffing could return to pre-grant levels or even lower in the coming years since the village does not intend to backfill all departures, officials said. For every firefighter who retires and is not replaced, Oak Lawn realizes less overtime savings from the new hires brought on through the grant.

Another uncertainty involves how firefighters respond to an increase in manpower.

If the larger staff size results in firefighters changing their sick leave and vacation habits in a way that increases the need for overtime, it could also put a dent in the savings, village officials said.

Griffin, the union president, said he believes that while technically possible, it is “highly improbable” that firefighters would change their sick leave and vacation habits as a result of staffing increases.

Griffin said that while he strongly supports Oak Lawn’s acceptance of the SAFER grant, he was not aware the village did not intend to replace all firefighters who retired.

Griffin added that the union views the grant and the successive collective bargaining agreement as mutually exclusive, and that he was not aware the village expected the union to compromise in some fashion as a condition of appointing additional firefighters.

He said he considered the SAFER grant a standalone — a mutually beneficial arrangement that would decrease overtime costs for the village and enhance firefighter life safety by reducing wear and tear on the department — and insisted the union had conveyed that to the village administration in previous discussions.

The upcoming contract negotiations, he said, were an entirely separate issue.

The administration takes a different view. By appointing seven new firefighters at a cost of $933,436 without the guarantee of recouping that money, it bears all the risk, officials said. The village therefore hopes to rectify that perceived imbalance with the union through compromise.

The parties are currently scheduled to begin negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement on Nov. 29 with two subsequent meeting dates planned for December. The department’s current contract, which was arbitrated earlier this year after negotiations stalled, ends on Dec. 31.

It remains to be seen whether the parties can work out a mutually agreeable deal that will allow the village to feel comfortable appointing seven new firefighters, but both sides said they had been encouraged by recent informal discussions about the SAFER grant and would bargain in good faith.

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McHenry County fire departments struggle with staffing

Excerpts from the

 As a part-time firefighter, Jonathan Fleck isn’t eligible to receive health insurance through the Huntley Fire Protection District. But after seven years, he is getting a little help.

Along with the Cary and the Rutland-Dundee fire protection districts, and the Sugar Grove Fire Department, Huntley is going to split a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to provide part-time firefighters with an incentive to stay over the next four years.

As long as he completes six hours of training and works six shifts a month, Fleck and other part-timers in Huntley will receive a $75 monthly stipend that goes directly to health care, child care, college education, or a retirement plan.

Because part-time firefighters receive lower pay, no benefits and fewer perks than their full-time counterparts, local fire officials have to get creative when it comes to retention and recruitment. For some, that means offering a financial incentive, while others choose to tout their ability to prepare firefighters for a full-time job in the field.

Huntley Chief Ken Caudle said his department consists of about 30 part-timers and 58 full-time firefighters. Ideally, Caudle wants to have 35 part-time employees, but he struggles to find candidates who want to go through rigorous and time-consuming training to work a shift a week as a firefighter/paramedic for about $17 or $18 an hour.

It’s a problem local departments share because they often are working with the same part-time employees.

“A lot of our guys have become full time in other departments, but they will come in on their day off to protect their own community,” Cary Fire Chief Jeffrey Macko said.

Under the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response grant, they hope to be able keep and build on their pool of part-timers.

Only 8 percent of the fire departments in the country were staffed entirely by career firefighters as of January, and none of them are in McHenry County, according to the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Department Census.

Most of the fire departments in McHenry County are made up with a majority of part-time firefighters. Only two departments in the county – the Crystal Lake Fire Rescue Department and the Huntley Fire Protection District – are mostly career, meaning 51 percent to 99 percent of their staff are full time.

At the Richmond Fire Protection District, Chief Rick Gallas is the only full-time firefighter in a station that’s staffed 24 hours a day. Adding more full-time firefighters isn’t an option because of tax revenue, but he’s got a system to make his department work.

“Our goal is to get them in, get them training and use them for five to seven years depending on the hiring process for career departments,” Gallas said. “Then we’re going to lose them.”

Gallas is in the middle of his annual recruitment drive to find five to 10 candidates within a 10-mile radius of the town who can go through the department’s mini-academy to prepare them to get their Firefighter Basic Certificate. The fire department splits the $2,400 cost with the trainee.

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