Posts Tagged fire department fights staffing cuts

Oak Lawn Fire Department news (more)

Excerpts from the

While the Village of Oak Lawn and the Oak Lawn Firefighters Union had 10 disputed issues in its recent arbitration litigation the main issue of minimum manning was decided in favor of the firefighters with the village once again losing the argument for fewer employees in the fire department.

On January 1, Arbitrator Steven M. Bierig, issued  a 195 page decision that found in favor of the union on minimum manning and six other issues, while finding in favor of the village on two issues and allowing the court to determine the final issue regarding out of state residency.

Minimum manning is the most hotly contested issue between the parties and has been the subject of numerous arbitration and court hearings.  Bierig wrote, “After a review of the evidence and arguments in this matter, I find that the village’s proposal regarding manning is not a breakthrough and that the village has failed to meet its burden to show that such a breakthrough is appropriate. For the reasons discussed below, the union’s status quo proposal is granted.”  As noted by Bierig, the party that seeks a change in the contract has the burden of proving that a change is necessary in the status quo.

Bierig cited a Will County Case and applied a long standing test stating, “Arbitrators typically apply a 3-prong test that a party must meet in order to demonstrate that a major change in the status quo is needed: 1) the old system or procedure has not worked as anticipated when originally agreed to; or (2) the existing system or procedure has created operational hardships for the employer or equitable or due process problems for the union; and (3) the party seeking to maintain the status quo has resisted attempts to bargain over the change (i.e., refused a quid pro quo).”

Despite the village arguing that the minimum manning number was in excess of what is necessary to protect the village, the arbitrator applied the three factors to uphold the number. He said the minimum manning number has worked as intended.   He noted that it was uncontested that the village has been fighting fires with 21 employees on a shift.  The village argued that the number should be reduced to 19 members per shift and that the number was imminently reasonable.  The village presented an expert witness who testified that the village could function with three rather than four employees per engine.  The firefighter’s union countered the argument noting that the system of having 21 employees has worked well for the village’s safety.

The firefighter’s union argued that the Village of Oak Lawn is obtaining excellent fire protection and the current staffing is working exactly as it was intended. Further, the union contends that the evidence shows that by implementing the plan that the village requested would be counter intuitive. According to the union’s argument, It would actually impede the ability of the village to effectively respond to fires.

As an example, the union noted that with 4 employees on an engine, one company can arrive at a fire and immediately begin to fight it. “Further, if the village’s proposal was implemented, it would require 2 pieces of equipment in order to begin to fight a fire, which is not the most efficient approach to fire fighting. By having to rely more heavily on mutual aid, it places the citizens of the village in a vulnerable position in which, at times, it must rely upon the willingness of a neighboring community to assist. This is not feasible and should be rejected.”

The union also presented an expert witness who testified that  4 employees on an engine is far preferable to 3 in terms of fighting fires. The expert explained that the fact that some departments do use 3 firefighters on an engine does not mean that 4 is not a preferable number.

The village’s argument that the change in minimum manning was a minor change was discarded by the arbitrator finding that the proposal to reduce the minimum manning number was a major modification.  The opinion stated:

The union has also presented substantial evidence to show that by moving from 4 to 3 employees on an engine, the residents of the village would be placed in a vulnerable situation that would endanger lives.

Bierig noted that the amount of employees on a shift has dated back for over 24 years to 1992 when the late Mayor Ernie Kolb served in office.  Bierig wrote that the change from the existing number of 21 would be “a significant departure from the existing provision” based on the long standing agreement.  In finding for the union on the issue, the arbitrator stated that the village’s wish to reduce the minimum manning was based on an economic reason and not an operational issue.

The arbitrator rejected the village’s claim noting that he could not find that the existing minimum manning number created operational hardships for the village.  The arbitrator also rejected the village’s long standing contention that the union has refused to address the issue at the bargaining table.  Village Manager Larry Deetjen has stated many times that the union would not bargain with the village.

The union, according to the decision, contended that while the village has made proposals to the union regarding manning, those proposals were not of sufficient value for the union to seriously consider reducing the number of personnel on an engine.

Bierig referred to previous arbitration disputes between the parties and noted that Arbitrator Benn was confronted with the same issue in the prior case between these parties. Bierig wrote, “In rejecting the same issue, he held: The village seeks a sea change to the manning system – specifically, the ability to reduce minimum manning from four to three employees on an engine, i.e., a 25% reduction – when the system has been in place for 20 years and was formulated with the mutual intent ” … for purposes of efficient response to emergency situations and for reasons of employee safety… ” with a mandate that if those agreed upon levels are not met, ” … employees shall be hired back pursuant to Section 6.4. ‘Overtime Distribution’” as expressed in Section 7.9(a) of the Firefighter Agreement [emphasis added]. The village does not seek this sea change because the manning system is operationally broken. Rather, the village seeks this sea change because the manning system is costly. That is not a basis for an interest arbitrator to change such a safety provision as important as minimum manning. Where one party (here, the union) seeks to maintain the status quo and there is no demonstration by the party seeking the change (here, the village) that the system is broken, that kind of change must come through the bargaining process.”

The union won 7 issues outright, while the village won 2 of the disputed issues.  One issue, regarding out of state residency will be decided by the courts in February.  The village’s offer on wages was accepted.  The village’s proposal on extra duty pay and responsibilities to keep the status quo in the contract was also accepted by the arbitrator.

thanks Dan

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Oak Lawn Fire Department news

Excerpts from the

For years, Oak Lawn’s administration and its firefighters union have waged a bitter and expensive legal battle over minimum apparatus and shift staffing requirements.

The administration argues that the department can safely and effectively run with three on an engine and a total of 19 firefighters per shift. The union contends that four to an engine — as is stipulated in the parties’ collective bargaining agreement — and 21 individuals on duty at all times — as a grievance arbitrator decided in 2008 — represent the minimum staffing necessary to keep firefighters and the community safe.

Unable to make any headway in discussions on the topic, the parties have turned to an arbitrator to adjudicate recent labor contracts. If the arbitrator, whose ruling on the current contract is expected in November, sides with the village and permits a reduction in staffing, it would mean nearly $1 million in annual savings on overtime, officials have said. It also would mean a less safe work environment for firefighters and the public, union president Vince Griffin contends.

The National Fire Protection Association, which releases national firefighting codes and standards, recommends that fire engine companies be staffed with a minimum of four members, as Griffin would prefer. One firefighter should staff the pump, another should secure the water supply and two should advance the hoseline, according to the NFPA’s guidelines.

Maintaining four to an engine also enables adherence to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s two-in, two-out rule, which mandates that firefighters never enter a burning building alone. When two firefighters do enter a dangerous situation, there always should be two others on the outside who can back them up or rescue them, if need be.

In practice, however, fire departments vary in their observance of the NFPA’s standards. Because the standards are not law, but rather recommended best practices, departments pick and choose which they wish to follow.

I would say the majority of the fire departments in the United States follow at least some of the NFPA standards,” said Ed Conlin, a retired Massachusetts fire lieutenant who now serves as the NFPA’s division manager of public fire protection. “Which ones (they follow), it’s hard to determine, because departments can cherry pick not only the document they want to use, but also the section of the document they want to use.”

Suburban Illinois departments rarely follow the NFPA’s suggested minimum apparatus staffing, Oak Lawn fire chief George Sheets said. “All of our surrounding communities are responding with less than 4 (on an engine),” he said. “The entire state of Illinois, with the exception of maybe five departments, is running with less than 4.”

While Sheets says he’d love to be able to continue staffing four firefighters per engine, he doesn’t believe it’s necessary given the village’s smaller building stock and its membership in MABAS, the state’s mutual aid system.

Only one of a list of 14 comparable communities agreed upon by village officials and the union as part of the current arbitration process staffs four to an engine. The rest run with 2 or 3, according to a court exhibit provided by Oak Lawn’s legal counsel.

“Those communities are larger than us in some respects, so that gives you a real compelling comparison of other communities that operate with less, that are larger and more densely populated and have infrastructure we don’t have,” Sheets said. “When you look at the Southland area, there’s no department that comes close to the staffing of Oak Lawn.”

He argues the total number of firefighters that assemble at a scene, rather than the number on any given apparatus, is what really matters. NFPA standards recommend that a minimum of 12 firefighters respond to fires at single-family dwellings; 23 for open-air strip malls; 27 for garden style apartments; and 40 for high-rise buildings.

Sheets said that when you take into consideration the 21-per-shift staffing that Oak Lawn currently employs and add to that the mutual aid provided by neighboring departments, it’s typical for there to be between 30 and 40 firefighters present for any working fire in the village.

Reducing per-shift staffing from 21 to 19 — either by reducing the staffing per apparatus or removing an apparatus altogether — would not make a significant dent in the overall fire response, Sheets and other village officials argue.

Only about 30 percent of the fire department’s 8,000-plus calls each year are for fires, and the vast majority of those end up being false alarms, he said. In Sheets’ estimation, Oak Lawn battles only about 10 working fires annually. Rather than staff four to an engine all the time, he’d prefer to place a fourth ambulance in service to respond to the village’s growing number of medical emergency calls.

“We could have jump companies where, depending on the type of call, the people jump on the appropriate piece of apparatus,” Sheets said. “That’s what 99 percent of departments in the state and country do — they have jump companies and the flexibility of taking a piece of apparatus based on the call.”

Griffin, however, argues that any reduction in staffing would have a detrimental effect on safety, and said he’d be doing a disservice to Oak Lawn residents and fellow firefighters if he conceded to any reductions.

thanks Dan

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Chicago Heights Fire Department news

Excerpts from

Budget problems are forcing Chicago Heights to reduce its number of firefighters and the community is banding together to fight the cuts.

Chicago Heights Mayor David Gonzalez sent out a letter to residents last week detailing a five-point modernization plan for the fire department of 57 full-time firefighters. It includes hiring part-time firefighters to cut down on overtime and pension costs and reducing the manpower at fire stations from 17 to 15 per shift.

“We are not proposing any cuts into our full-time fire department, but what we are looking to do is we would like to add on certified part-time firemen,” Mayor Gonzalez said.

Chicago Heights Local 711 is against the plan. They’ve been trying to get the word out with the “Keep 17” signs that are popping up in yards across town.

“Any number of cuts to that 17 is devastating to operational safety whether it is dealing with multiple ambulance calls or structure fires,” Chicago Heights Local 711 President Steve Koenig said.

The mayor said the city would use some of the savings to upgrade their ambulance fleet. Residents say they just want to make sure their level of service isn’t compromised.

The mayor stressed that the talks are ongoing with the union and a final decision has not been made.

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