Lockport's firefighter union plans to take city hall to court.
Lockport's firefighter union plans to take city hall to court.
Earlier this week, the union filed court documents that could force the city to comply with a court mediator's ruling that should have added more firefighters per shift.
Right now, about nine firefighters respond to structure fires in the city.
The union says, the minimum should be ten.
Firefighters say that extra crew person could drastically help respond to fires, especially when crews go inside a burning building. For each two firefighters who go inside, two more must remain outside in case of an emergency.
Lockport Mayor Mike Tucker says the fire department cost the city more than $300,000 dollars in overtime last year. He says adding another firefighter will increase that cost.
Both sides disagree on whether the city residents should be concerned about their safety.
"We would never willingly, knowingly put a firefighter in harms way. We just have different ideas on how we get to that point," said Tucker.
"I would be concerned. It's one of the primary reasons why I live in the city of Lockport, is that we have a paid professional fire department. I know when I dial 911 I'm gonna have someone at my door in three minutes, and for the tax dollars that we pay, we should be fully staffed," said firefighter Luca Quagliano.
Mayor Tucker says the city can meet safe staffing requirements by shifting schedules around.
Below is a Q an A with Randell Parker, president of the Lockport Professional Firefighter Association.
Q. Why has the Lockport FF Union filed a court action?
A. On Oct 7, 2009, arbitrator Dennis Campagna issued a ruling requiring the City of Lockport to restore minimum manning to ten. The city has not complied with this ruling. Therefore the union has filed to have the ruling confirmed by the State Supreme Court to make the ruling legally binding.
Q. Why did the arbitrator award the ten man minimum manning?
A. Article 3 Section 19 of the collective bargaining agreement states "the City agrees that it will man all equipment with adequate manpower to assure that any evolutions the men are called upon to perform can be conducted with enough men to assure the safety of the men performing the evolution." The arbitrator determined this contract language requires a minimum manning level. He weighed testimony from several witnesses and determined the previous level of ten to be the lowest acceptable level. Some of the factors that entered into this decision were:
-The minimum nationally accepted safe standard for the types of structures in the city of Lockport is 15.
-That the original reduction from ten was made purely for financial reasons with no regard to safety
-The loss of the one man resulted in the need to not respond with all equipment, resulting in a built in delay of 30 minutes if the equipment was needed.
Q. How does the difference between ten and nine man manning effect the operations of the department?
A. With one man assigned to dispatch the response level is eight as opposed to nine. The first response complement of one attack engine, one water supply/backup engine, one ladder truck and one rescue unit requires four drivers in addition to an Assistance Chief who oversees all activities but can not perform actual tasks as this would interfere with his command functions. With a ten man minimum this leaves four men for initial fire attack. Almost all evolutions are performed as a two man team, so two initial functions can be performed such as fire suppression, ventilation, or search and rescue. To perform almost any evolution singly is unsafe. Two drivers must then suit up as a backup team. If the manning is nine, only three men are initially available and they can only perform one firefighting function. As all the functions are related the inability to perform one interferes with the completion of the others. Public safety is compromised when all tasks can not be rapidly completed. To fight a fire then requires the use of the men who should be a back up team to perform fire attack, resulting in no back up for a firefighter emergency. This results in an unsafe situation for firefighters. OSHA requires two backup personal, fully equipped and with no other duty, for every two men that enter a fire building.
The Lockport Fire department also provides full time emergency ambulance service at the Paramedic level. With the reduction from ten to nine, ambulance staffing was reduced from three to two. This not only affects the logistics of emergency calls but the capability to perform patient care. Two men can not carry a patient and all the EMS equipment required for advanced life support. With one man driving the ambulance, and one paramedic to attend the patient many advanced life support activities can not be adequately provided. Calling for additional assistance not only creates a delay but takes another complete vehicle and crew offline.
Q. What is the timeline of the current situation?
A. In 1980 Fire department staffing was 74 men. Over the years it was reduced to 59. This provided four platoons of 14 men with three staff officers. With four men allowed off per shift and a minimum manning of ten there was now automatic overtime. The yearly overtime budget was in the neighborhood of $100,000. In 2001 the city did not replace retiring firefighters. As the number of men per shift fell, overtime began to rise. To combat this, the city reduced manning to nine. In 2002 a supplemental agreement was signed allowing for a minimum manning of ten with three men allowed off. This allowed the city to reduce overtime expense with hiring firefighters. This agreement expired at the end of 2005. The city at that time refused to extend it and reduced the manning to nine and then to eight, eventually acknowledging eight created too many problems, it was increased back to nine. The union pursued grievances regarding the reductions as well as associated issues regarding vehicle staffing and response.
Even with the decreased manning to nine overtime costs remained high due to the return to four men off as well as an overall decrease in staffing levels. Since 2001, the city has hired new firefighters but at a rate much lower than the number of retirees. The four platoons are currently staffed with 47 firefighters and one staff position has been eliminated, leaving the department with 49 men. No other city department has lost this many positions and many have increased staffing over this timeframe.
Manning reductions have followed staffing reductions. Overtime has increased as staffing levels have been decreased. In the past the City Management has stated it is cheaper to pay overtime than to hire, so that was the course of action.