Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Firefighters bash plan to reduce OT

Cost jumps by $3.5M: acting chief

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A controversial plan to cut overtime costs drew a fiery rebuttal from the firefighters union, which claims the move threatens public safety.

Acting fire chief Bill Clark confirmed he proposes reducing the number of firefighters who ride in secondary fire trucks -- from four to two -- to stem overtime costs that are out of control.

Clark told the Free Press he would remove the secondary trucks from two of the eight stations where they are based.

Secondary trucks are currently placed at eight strategically located stations, available as support for major events in other areas or to respond to alarms that come in when the primary truck is on a call.

"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) and we will not put firefighters or the public at risk."

United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg president Alex Forrest said the move threatens the lives of firefighters and the public because it will reduce the number of firefighters on duty, slowing their response time. He said that's a threat to their lives and to the public.

There are too few firefighters on staff and that's the reason overtime costs have ballooned, he added.

Clark issued a memo Tuesday outlining his plans. Although he said in an interview secondary trucks would be eliminated at two stations, his memo doesn't give the specific number of stations to be affected when secondary trucks 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," he 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."

Overtime costs have increased 86 per cent this year, creating "a massive impact to our budget," the memo states.

The city's finance committee was told last week spending on overtime within the Fire Paramedic Service is over budget by $3.5 million 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," the memo states.

Clark outlined his budget-saving moves to all members of council Monday.

Coun. Scott Fielding, chairman of the protection and community services committee, said Clark assured council his proposal wouldn't jeopardize safety.

"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."

Finance chairman Russ Wyatt said he supports Clark's efforts to control OT 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 union before the measures are 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 Tuesday.

"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 union and the two sides can resolve the issue.

However, Fielding said he and council will rely on Clark's advice.

Forrest said the moves violates the collective agreement and goes against industry standards on firefighting protocols.

Forrest accused Clark of trying to curry favour with councillors in a bid to become the new fire chief.

Forrest said secondary fire vehicles are 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.

"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 concluded OT costs were driven by the low number of firefighters on the 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.

There aren't enough firefighters on staff 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 Douglas is being blamed for the fallout surrounding the controversial awarding of a contract for the construction of four new fire halls.

The memo and Forrest's statement are posted on the union's website:

What worries you more: the spike in the cost of protective services like firefighting or a cost saving proposal the union says jeopardizes safety? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 18, 2013 B1

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