A controversial plan to reduce firefighter overtime costs drew a fiery rebuttal from the firefighters' union, which claims the move threatens public safety.
Acting fire Chief Bill Clark confirmed today he will be idling secondary fire trucks at two stations and reducing the number of firefighters who ride in them to stem overtime costs that are rising out of control.
But union president Alex Forrest said the move threatens the lives of firefighters and the public and will not resolve the overtime problem.
"Our overtime costs have risen from $2 million to $5.5 million and we can’t sustain that," Clark said. "We’re implementing measures to stem the (overtime) bleeding and we will not put firefighters or the public at risk."
Forrest, president of the United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, said Clark’s move will reduce the number of firefighters on duty, slowing their response time and that will threaten their lives and those of the public they are meant to save.
"Overtime will not be solved by putting firefighters and the public at risk," Forrest said.
Forrest said there are too few firefighters on staff and that’s the real reason overtime costs are ballooning.
Clark issued a memo Tuesday morning, outlining his plans, to all members of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service. In it, Clark states secondary fire trucks at an unspecified number of fire stations will be redeployed or left idle "unless required during period of peak demand."
Forrest said the strategy is incomprehensible.
"There are no peak times for fires," Forrest said. "We need a specific number of firefighters on duty to effectively respond and if you cut that number, you put the lives of firefighters and the public at risk."
The memo and Forrest’s statement are posted on the union’s website, http://www.uffw.ca/To%20the%20members.htm#Staffing.
Clark states in his memo that overtime costs have increased 86 per cent this year, adding that creates "a massive impact to our budget."
The city's finance committee was told last week that spending on overtime within the fire-paramedic service is over budget by $3.5 million for this year.
"This is not sustainable and the department has been working to find solutions to offset these costs, without making an impact on public or member safety," Clark states in the memo circulated by the firefighters' union.
Clark outlined his budget-saving moves to all members of council Monday during a budget seminar.
Coun. Scott Fielding, chair of the civic protection and community services committee, said Clark came up with a way to reduce overtime costs and he assured council the safety of firefighters and the public will not be put at risk.
"The No. 1 priority is (ensuring) the public safety for citizens is not impacted," Fielding said. "But at the same time, the overtime issue is real and must be addressed."
Coun. Russ Wyatt, chairman of the city's finance committee, said he supports Clark’s efforts to control the department’s overtime costs.
Fielding said councillors were told Clark has the administrative authority to implement the budget moves without council’s approval, adding Clark assured councillors he would meet with Forrest and the firefighters’ union before the measures were put in place.
Forrest said Clark never met with the union and the first they learned of the moves was when he saw a copy of the memo late Tuesday afternoon.
"This acting chief is trying to change how we fight fires," Forrest told the Free Press. "We’re in shock."
Fielding said he hopes Clark meets with the firefighters’ union and the two sides can come to a resolution.
However, Fielding said he and council will rely on Clark’s advice.
Forrest said the moves violate the collective agreement and go against industry standards on firefighting protocols. He accused Clark of trying to curry favour with members of council in a bid to become the city’s new fire chief.
Forrest said secondary fire vehicles are now stationed at eight fire stations in the city, adding they are needed to ensure minimum compliance with a national firefighting protocol that requires 16 firefighters respond to a fire within eight minutes.
Removing the secondary firefighting trucks will result in the city not being able to meet the national standards, Forrest said.
"Without those secondary vehicles, it will take longer to get firefighters to a fire and that places residents and firefighters at risk," Forrest said.
Forrest said he spent Tuesday afternoon lobbying councillors to have the move reversed.
Forrest said a 2009 audit of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service concluded the department’s overtime costs were driven by the low number of firefighters on payroll.
"Our overtime is high because we had 34 firefighters retire or resign and another 16 on long-term disability and we haven’t had any hires this year," Forrest said.
Keeping the number of firefighters on payroll down results in not enough staff available to cover all scheduled shifts, Forrest said, adding that means more firefighters have to be brought in on overtime.
Fire Chief Reid Douglas is officially on vacation but sources recently told the Free Press he has been ordered to stay away from his office while a settlement package is being negotiated.
The Free Press reported Sept. 7 that Douglas is being blamed for the fallout surrounding the controversial awarding of a contract for the construction of four new fire halls.