Firefighter union boss Alex Forrest is applauding Mayor Katz’s handling of the recent staffing controversy.
Alex Forrest, president of United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg, said he supports Katz’s commitment to have a face-to-face meeting with acting fire chief Bill Clark.
"I’m sitting down with Bill Clark early next week," Forrest said this afternoon. "He (Clark) has said there won’t be an implementation (of staffing cuts) until we can sit down and try and figure out a solution to this."
Sam Katz said this morning that he is not concerned about the war of words between the firefighters’ union and the acting fire chief over a controversial plan to reduce overtime costs.
Katz said the costs associated with overtime in the Fire Paramedic Service is a serious concern that he expects Clark and Forrest to resolve amongst themselves.
"The problem of over time has to be addressed," Katz said during his weekly Wednesday morning exchange with reporters. "You’re not going to get definitive (solution) until you get the two people with opposite view points (Clark and Forrest) in a room together having a serious conversation.
"What you’ve seen in the last 18 hours has been a lot of daytime drama which is great for the media but now I think they’re (Clark and Forrest) going to get down face to face and have some discussions, which is the only way to resolve these kinds of issues."
The fire department’s overtime bill is 86 per cent over budget, expecting to exceed $5 million by the end of the year -- $3.5 million over budget.
Katz said he doesn’t know what is the reason for the 86 per cent increase in overtime costs, but said he expects Clark and Forrest to come up with a solution.
Clark said the main reason is too many firefighters taking sick days. Forrest counters the fire department doesn’t have enough firefighters on payroll to cover all scheduled shifts and the problem has been made worse this year because they haven’t replaced 34 firefighters who retired or resigned and another 16 on long-term disability.
Clark told councillors Monday that he can control costs by eliminating secondary fire trucks at two stations – Pembina at Dalhousie, and Marion at Dawson – without compromising response times or putting firefighters and the public at risk.
Katz backed Clark on the promise not to compromise public and firefighter safety.
"Safety would never be put at risk, for either firefighters or the public – that’s always been the case and it’s not going to change."
Forrest said he still does not believe staffing cuts are the answer to the city’s overtime problem, adding he’s hopeful they’ll reach an amicable solution.
"We’ve had six years of very good labour management relationships and I think this went off the rails because we didn’t know anything about this."
Forrest said he can demonstrate the solution to the OT problem is timely hiring, not staffing cuts.
"We don’t have a sick time problem," Forrest said. "We don’t have any more members off sick than last year or in the last five years.
"We have a hiring problem. We haven’t hired anyone since January and if we don’t hire more firefighters, our OT bill will be 170 per cent worse next year."
Forrest said the fire department had to call in four firefighters on OT Tuesday night.
Forrest said the fire department needs 167 firefighters on duty every shift but there were only 163 available Tuesday night and four others had to be called in on OT.
The fire department has 220 firefighters available every shift, Forrest said, but added every shift 40 of those members are on holidays or training. Add in those injured, on long-term disability and those who call in sick, then the city comes up short every shift.