Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fire chief, union to talk staffing

They'll try to douse hot overtime fracas

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Firefighters union boss Alex Forrest is applauding Mayor Sam Katz's handling of the recent staffing controversy.

The 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.

Numbers for Sunday, Sept. 15 at fire stations across Winnipeg, based on data provided by United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg

167 The number of firefighters needed per shift to staff every truck and station 24/7

 

220 The number of firefighters on payroll per shift

 

 

45 The number of firefighters off on vacation. Daily shift average is 35-40 off on vacation

 

175 The pool of firefighters theoretically available to cover those 167 positions

 

163 The number of firefighters available Sunday night to work

 

12 Firefighters unable to work Sunday night for reasons such as illness and bereavement

4 The number of firefighters called in on overtime to meet the minimum 167 needed

"I'm sitting down with Bill Clark early next week," Forrest said Wednesday. "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."

Katz said earlier Wednesday he isn't concerned about the war of words between the firefighters union and the acting fire chief over a controversial plan to reduce overtime costs.

The mayor said the costs associated with overtime in the Fire Paramedic Service are a serious concern he expects Clark and Forrest to resolve between themselves.

"The problem of overtime has to be addressed," Katz said in his weekly Wednesday-morning exchange with reporters. "You're not going to get a definitive (solution) until you get the two people (Clark and Forrest) with opposite viewpoints in a room together having a serious conversation.

"... 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 and is expected to exceed $5 million by the end of the year -- $3.5 million over budget. Katz said he doesn't know the real reason for the excess overtime costs, noting Clark and Forrest offer different explanations.

Clark said the main reason is too many firefighters are 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 the city hasn't replaced 34 firefighters who retired or resigned and another 16 on long-term disability.

Clark told councillors Monday he can control costs by eliminating secondary fire trucks at two stations -- Pembina Highway at Dalhousie Drive, and Marion Street at Dawson Road -- 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 hopes he and Clark 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 overtime problem is timely hiring, not staffing cuts. "We don't have a sick-time problem," he 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."

aldo.santin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 19, 2013 B1

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