Fire Chief Thomas J. Passuite issued a directive Friday reducing the minimum number of firefighters for each shift to nine from 10, effective Sunday.
Passuite was able to make the move because a supplemental agreement with the Lockport Professional Firefighters Association, fixing the minimum staffing level at 10, expires today.
"Until we get an agreement, that's the way it's going to be," Passuite said.
When the books are closed on 2005, the city expects to have incurred about $400,000 in overtime in the Fire Department for the year. Mayor Michael W. Tucker and the Common Council blame much of the problem on the terms of the three-year-old supplemental agreement, which requires at least 10 firefighters working per shift.
The department is divided into four platoons, three with 12 men and one with 13. There are two shifts daily, one of 14 hours and the other of 10 hours. The agreement limited the number of firefighters allowed to be off on any given shift to three. Passuite said the maximum number of firefighters off work now will be set at four per platoon.
If there aren't enough men available in a platoon to fill the minimum requirement, firefighters from other platoons are called in and paid time-and-a-half for the entire shift. During heavy vacation periods, the city expects to save money with one fewer man required to be present.
The Council has refused to allow more hiring, and retirements and injuries have left the department's active strength nine firefighters fewer than it was three years ago, when the supplemental agreement was made.
Talks on a new deal with the union began Dec. 15 and will continue Thursday, with Charles Leonard of the state Public Employment Relations Board. .
Tucker said the new policy will have little impact on overtime costs, since there are few vacations scheduled for the firefighters in the first three months of the year.
He said the 2006 city budget includes only $200,000 for Fire Department overtime. Tucker said he asked union president Thomas Lupo Thursday for a 30-day extension of the old agreement, but Lupo refused.
Lupo said, "He wanted to extend an agreement they say is horrible for the city and cost too much overtime."
Tucker said he wants to see an agreement with the union during January. If not, he said, "I'll have to impose something, let it go to an arbiter and see what the arbiter says. I won't let it go on forever."
Lupo said the minimum staffing level has been 10 per shift since the 1970s, except for a nine-month period in 2002 when it was nine.