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Lockport fire units face cuts in staffing

LOCKPORT – The city’s Fire Board voted Tuesday to take one of the city’s two ambulances out of service and reduce the number of firefighters working on each shift, with both moves to take effect May 1.

The decisions came in response to increased overtime costs and declining morale caused by overwork, said David E. Blackley, deputy corporation counsel for labor issues.

But Firefighter Kevin W. Pratt, president of the Lockport Professional Fire Fighters Association, said the moves violate the union’s contract and likely will be the subject of a grievance.

Grievances are nothing unusual in the fire union’s long-standing antagonism with the city administration, but this one is over more serious issues than a recent fight over who has the right to use the automatic garage door openers at the firehouse, an issue that provoked a lawsuit earlier this month.

Blackley said the vote to direct Fire Chief Thomas J. Passuite to make the reductions, taken after a two-hour closed-door session of the Fire Board, was unanimous.

Fire Board President Peter P. Robinson declined to comment, referring all questions to Blackley.

Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said, “The fire chief has informed me that overtime is about $200,000 year to date. We have only $500,000 budgeted, and we haven’t reached the main vacation season yet. The fire chief’s estimate is that if things stay as they are, we’ll spend $1 million in overtime this year.”

And that’s where the fiscally strapped city’s lack of a fund balance enters the picture. “If we have $500,000 budgeted, we don’t have the other $500,000 to pay them,” McCaffrey said.

The fire department uses a four-platoon structure, with one platoon working 14 hours and another 10 hours on a given day. The other two platoons are off.

However, if the minimum staffing level can’t be reached because of illnesses, vacations or any other reason, firefighters are called in from one of the idle platoons and paid time and a half for the entire shift.

The department’s strength was reduced by eight firefighters as of Jan. 1, as the Common Council voted in favor of layoffs in the 2014 budget. One retired before the end of the year, but there were still seven layoffs.

With the department’s strength at 37 firefighters, plus the chief and the training officer, staffing four platoons with a minimum of nine men each, as required by the union contract, has become difficult, Blackley said.

But the city and the union have been unable to bargain any changes in staffing or scheduling that might relieve the problems.

“Discussions are always possible. We’re willing to talk, and we talk,” McCaffrey said. “But we don’t have anything more to give in salaries or benefits.”

“We’re trying to look out for the safety of the firemen,” Blackley said. “It’s a toll on them as well. It’s a difficult decision.”

Blackley said the second ambulance only takes about 11 percent of the calls, and half of those are “routine transports.”

This isn’t the first time the city has tried to reduce minimum manning levels without bargaining with the union. At the beginning of 2006, the city cut the staffing level from 10 to eight per shift.

The union took the city to arbitration and won, with the state arbitrator ruling that not only was the city required to field 10 firefighters per shift, but it was required to send an ambulance to every fire call.

The union later agreed to let the city cut minimum manning to nine per shift.

Blackley said Tuesday’s moves were “a solution for morale and safety.”

Blackley said Lockport still has more professional ambulance crewmen in service, even with the planned cutbacks, than any other small community in the region. But the Fire Board, along with the minimum manning reduction, ordered that only two paramedics instead of three can be sent on any ambulance call.