Posts Tagged Fire Chief George Sheets

Oak Lawn Fire Department news (more)

Excerpts from the

Oak Lawn’s former Fire Chief George Sheets submitted his resignation recently after the mayor and board of trustees butted heads with the chief on questions of policy regarding the ongoing labor negotiations with the Oak Lawn Professional Fire Fighters Local 3405.

According to sources close to Sheets, the former chief vehemently disagreed with the board majority’s edict that he support a reduction in the minimum manning number as well as other hard line stances. The same sources said that he agreed that a reduction would be acceptable but the board’s number was  too low and other ideas were morale killers that wouldn’t be approved in arbitration or in a court case.

Sheets had been a stalwart supporter of the mayor and the board majority even allowing the mayor to use his name in a political mailer in which he disavowed his own public comments regarding the fire department. Despite that support, sources close to Sheets said that the pressure of working with a board that micromanages the department had gotten to him and the last year has been one in which he was seen as disloyal.

Sheets also served as chief of Chicago Ridge but recently questioned the arrangement noting that he had 15 bosses including two mayors, one village manager, and 12 trustees. In addition to the union negotiations, he reportedly disagreed with the board’s decision to rescind its SAFER Grant application.

Sheets told several individuals that he believes the members of the department need to be treated with respect during negotiations and the hard line demands of the village manager and the board are unreasonable.

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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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Chicago Ridge Fire Department news

Excerpts from the

The Chicago Ridge village board voted unanimously to approve a three-year contract on Aug. 15 with firefighters.

“Because of the very positive labor/management relationship, we were able to negotiate a three-year extension of the current contract,” said Fire Chief George Sheets. So the new agreement will be in effect through 2020.

“This contract was negotiated by labor and management, and without attorneys.  This alone, saved the Chicago Ridge taxpayers thousands of dollars,” he said.

International Association of Firefighters Local 3098 Union President Chris Schmelzer, who has held that position since 2000, said in a prepared statement that this negotiation was the most amicable, most productive, and least stressful I have ever been a part of.

He said the agreement represents cooperation between labor and management on a scale that we have never enjoyed. He said it literally has something for everyone, and will allow firefighters to serve the residents and visitors to Chicago Ridge for years to come, all while maximizing the productivity of the fire department as a whole.

In a related matter later in the meeting, the board also approved the purchase of a replacement ambulance, a 2016 Ford F450 Demo.

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Oak Lawn politics in the news (more)

Excerpts from the

Oak Lawn Village Manager Larry Deetjen is being charged with sending a politically charged press release to news outlets announcing the termination of Robert Lanz, a longtime firefighter/paramedic while simultaneously smearing the fire department with allegations of “animal house behavior” and a previously unreported child porn allegation.

Lanz was accused by the village’s administration of calling phone sex lines possibly while on duty and was served with a notice to appear for an interrogation. The press release said that Lanz violated departmental rules by allegedly making those phone calls on his cell phone while at the firehouse.  The press release quotes Fire Chief George Sheets referring to the calls as reckless animal house behavior.

While the press release claims the decision to fire Lanz was made by Sheets, it also quotes Mayor Sandra Bury, who seemed to contradict the statement that the decision was made by Sheets saying “consideration for public safety made this difficult decision a simple one”.  While the village has not alleged that Lanz made any phone calls while on paramedic or fire calls, the public safety issue has been previously raised by the administration to the chagrin of firefighters.

In court documents filed by the Village of Oak Lawn, the village claimed that Lanz, as a firefighter/paramedic, sees and treats the citizens of Oak Lawn when they are at their most vulnerable. While employees and officials we spoke to did not disagree with that statement, it was the following statement that raised the ire of everyone who read it:

Firefighter-paramedics such as the Plaintiff (Lanz) see patients when they are not fully clothed, and the paramedics must have physical contact with patients, often of the opposite sex. Because of this, the village must have supreme confidence that the firefighter will not abuse the patient relationship for his own personal gratification

“To connect an unproven allegation of phone sex to the possibility of a sex crime shows how far this administration will go to attack its firefighters”, said one employee who feared retaliation and asked for confidentiality.

However, that connection has now become even more pronounced in a press release and has been used to smear the entire fire department in what appears to be unsubstantiated allegations that were never acted upon over five years ago despite the village manager’s push to have the matter investigated by the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office. … who investigated and found no evidence of any criminal activity. Those allegations, according to a press release from Deetjen, involve child porn on computers. Nonetheless, Deetjen included the allegation in the press release that referred to animal house behavior.

Trustee Robert Streit confirmed that he had seen the press release but did not have any input into the decision to fire Lanz or to send out a press release.  “It is highly unusual to send out a press release to announce that you are terminating an employee and it strikes me as a morale killer within our employee ranks,” said Streit. He called the unrelated charges cited in the press release a smear against the whole department.

One former village official, who asked not to be identified, said that the old child porn revelation raised by contractors hired by Deetjen and referenced in the press release were ruled as unfounded charges.  The official said that the leaking of information regarding child porn seems to be Deetjen’s modus operandi … and  … “Deetjen seems to take ridiculous allegations and run to law enforcement agencies in order to scream that there is an investigation but nobody is ever prosecuted leading you to believe it is all a smear”.  He added that firefighters will not be the last victims of such smear campaigns and noted that they aren’t the only individuals to suffer from unsubstantiated innuendo.

In the Lanz investigation, Deetjen admitted that he personally investigated the names of some of the companies on the internet and determined that two of the companies provide phone sex services. He then reviewed Lanz’s records and determined some of the charges may have occurred when he was at the firehouse.

Streit said that Deetjen is an expert at the political smear noting that he too has been on the receiving end of Deetjen’s unfounded attacks.

The termination was not a complete surprise.  Sheets had told Lanz twelve days ago that he intended to seek termination and provided Lanz an opportunity to appear before the mayor’s appointees at the Police and Fire Commission to fight the charges.  Lanz is represented by the firefighters’ union and has decided to file a grievance instead contesting the termination. The grievance will be decided by an arbitrator.

The press release makes it clear that the administration will continue to fight with the firefighters.

Oak Lawn Termination Press Release

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Oak Lawn FD gets grant

The SouthtownStar has an article about the Oak Lawn Fire Department receiving a federal grant:

Firefighter/paramedics in Oak Lawn, along with patients getting CPR, should be safer thanks to a federal grant received Friday.

A $206,428 grant from the Department of Homeland Security will be used to buy four hydraulic lifts to move gurneys in and out of ambulances, and one automated CPR machine, Fire Chief George Sheets said.

Sheets said the lifts should help prevent firefighter/paramedics getting leg and back injuries while moving patients on gurneys in and out of ambulances. The lifts will be installed on the village’s three front-line ambulances and one of two backup ambulances.

The automated CPR machine will compress a patient’s chest, much like a firefighter/paramedic does with his or her hands, in efforts to get the heart beating again, Sheets said. Using the machine will free up firefighter/paramedics to conduct other tests and monitor patients en route to a hospital.

Oak Lawn Fire Deptartment Bureau Chief Gary Bettenhausen said the automated CPR machine “is more efficient and safer for the guys.”

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Oak Lawn unclear on pursuing Safer Grant

An article in the Oak Lawn Leaf

A proposal to investigate Safer Grants to fully fund the salaries of two new firefighters for two to three years was met with resistance, despite the fact that the Village of Oak Lawn will soon not have enough firefighters to meet its contractual obligation due to upcoming retirements.

Trustee Robert Streit asked the mayor and trustees to consider applying for a Safer Grant immediately. The village began the year with 76 firefighters and will be down to 72 by July 1st. The village has not hired any new firefighters since 2007. The staffing is down from a high of 108 through attrition and the failure to replace the firefighters.

The village has waged a legal battle with the firefighters’ union over the concept of minimum manning. The Oak Lawn Professional Firefighters Association Local 3405 and the village battled over this issue with the firefighters filing an unfair labor practice against the village for refusing to bargain on the issue.  The Illinois Labor Relations Board ruled against the village and that decision was upheld by the Illinois Appellate Court in 2011.

Phillip Kazanjian, an administrative law judge who issued an opinion in August of 2010, was one of two judges who heard testimony regarding the minimum manning issue. Judge Kazanjian also heard an unfair labor charge regarding the village’s decision to lay off firefighters. Oak Lawn’s current board majority has continued to pursue a change to the minimum manning law and has blamed the fire department for service cuts in other areas due to overtime.

The goal of a SAFER Grant (Staffing for Adequate Fire & Emergency Response) is to improve and restore fire department staffing so they may more effectively respond to and mitigate emergencies.  Streit raised the issue of applying for the grants by citing statistics including Fire Chief George Sheets’ statement that this year was the  deadliest in the history of Oak Lawn for fire deaths.

Deetjen said the village is preparing an application but it will require the cooperation of the union, implying that the union would have to make concessions for the village to support applying for a grant.   According to sources within the fire department, Deetjen remains opposed to adding additional firemen unless the firefighters’ union agrees to reduce the minimum manning provision.  Firefighters were recently told by Fire Chief George Sheets that the Village of Oak Lawn will not pursue the Safer Grant to add firefighters unless the union gives in to Deetjen’s demand.

The failure to adhere to the contract could lead the village into more litigation with the fire department if the firefighters file another unfair labor practice.  The village has incurred outstanding legal liabilities of over one million dollars in its unsuccessful battles with the firefighters.

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State legislation concerns local municipalities (more)

Thoughts and commentary centering on Illinois HB 5485:

From the Chicago Tribune:

Last week, the leaders of cities and towns across Illinois made a public plea for the state legislature to save them from the rising, crippling costs of public employee pension benefits. While the pension debate has tended to focus on Chicago and state government, it’s a huge problem for suburbs and downstate communities too. It puts enormous pressure on local taxes.

So what are lawmakers doing? Nothing much on municipal pensions. But they’re pushing legislation that would sock the municipalities — that is, local taxpayers — with even higher costs for government services.

The Illinois House this month passed a bill that would compel municipalities to negotiate the staffing levels for their fire departments with the firefighters union, even if their contracts don’t address that issue now. If an agreement on staffing levels can’t be resolved in collective bargaining, the issue would be subject to arbitration.

That is, the towns would lose the authority to decide how many people they need to staff the fire department. An arbitrator could order a town to maintain, say, at least a dozen firefighters on duty at all times.

It’s easy to see what’s in it for the firefighters union: more jobs.

And it’s easy to see what the impact would be on the residents of a town: higher taxes and cuts in other services.

Once fire staffing levels are set in a contract, it is difficult for city managers to adjust their fire-protection program in response to changing needs and resources. Springfield is angling to strip control from those in the best position to manage taxpayer funds and service needs, including local fire chiefs.

Some local governments already labor under staffing levels set by contract. Mayor Larry Morrissey of Rockford inherited such a contract rule when he won office in 2005, and he says he has struggled unsuccessfully to drop it. Rockford has to pay for more firefighters than it needs at the expense of other priorities, Morrissey told us. During the recession, the mandated overstaffing for fire protection forced the city to reduce its police force and make other painful cuts, he said.

Fire protection is essential. Municipalities, particularly small towns, need as much flexibility as possible to determine how to provide that service cost-effectively. Small towns may decide that a collaboration with neighboring towns would provide better service at lower cost. We can see how this law would drive a spike into such consolidation efforts.

The Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois argues that minimum staffing levels negotiated through contract are the most crucial factor in ensuring effective firefighting and rescue responses. We see no evidence, though, that citizens are better served when the people they elected to make such decisions are straitjacketed by state law.

The bill is in the Senate now. Senators, when you debate it, if you’re tempted to vote for it, be sure to call it what it is: a property tax increase bill. We’re sure your constituents will be thrilled.

From the SouthtownStar:

Steve Metsch’s recent story on the Oak Lawn Fire Department’s cost and staffing issues contained misinformation from Mayor Sandra Bury and the village, prompting me to clarify matters.

1) House Bill 5485 does not force towns to require minimum staf?ng on fire vehicles. All it does is codify that “minimum manning” is a mandatory subject of bargaining in Illinois, meaning that it has to be negotiated in good faith. HB 5485 does not mandate anything.

2) Fire Chief George Sheets’ comment that the key staf?ng issue is not how many ?re?ghters are on a truck but how many are at a fire scene is not accurate. We firefighters are able to bargain over staf?ng because our collective safety is directly related to how many ?re?ghters are assigned to an apparatus and to a particular shift. Oak Lawn ?re?ghters deserve to be safe at all times, not just at a fire scene.

3) Oak Lawn has underfunded its public safety pensions for years, while employees have contributed to their pensions every month, year after year. Whether the local economy was good or bad, the village has continually “kicked the can down the road.” It’s not fair to blame Oak Lawn police and ?re?ghters for the village not meeting its pension obligations.

4) Village manager Larry Deetjen said “72 percent of the Oak Lawn ?re?ghters do not live in Oak Lawn,” which is true. They have not been required to live in the village for at least 25 years. The residency requirement was dropped as a result of a federal discrimination investigation in the 1980s. Not residing in Oak Lawn does not take away a firefighter’s right to a safe work environment.

5) Deetjen continually cites the village spending nearly $2 million last year on fire department overtime. He doesn’t mention that the number of firefighters has declined from more than 100 to 76 — about a 25 percent cut while the department responds to an increasing number of emergency calls. Deetjen doesn’t say that the overtime cost is offset by the reduced manpower costs (wages, insurance and other bene?ts). The village has not hired any new ?re?ghters (or paramedics) since April 2007.

Vincent Grif?n


Oak Lawn Professional Fire?ghters Association

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Previous posts are HERE, HERE, and HERE.

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