City copes with fire staffing problems
Last Modified: February 17. 2013 9:51AM
Staffing issues that force the city to routinely place one of its three fire stations out of service are caused by the large percentage of firefighters who are off on vacation, sick or personal days each day, according to Mayor Tom Leighton.
The fire department, which is staffed by 16 or 17 firefighters for each of two shifts daily, is sometimes short 25 to 30 percent of its manpower due to those absences, Leighton said, leaving the city little option but to put the South station on High Street out of service or call firefighters in for overtime.
The scheduling woes have long been a source of frustration for Leighton, who frequently has had confrontations with firefighters over various issues relating to manning.
"I've been saying this for years. What business can operate when (up to) 30 percent of your work force is off?" Leighton said.
A Times Leader analysis of duty rosters from September support Leighton's claims.
At the request of a reporter, Leighton provided details from the rosters, which show the number of firefighters off each shift.
The city must put the South station out of service any time fewer than 14 firefighters are on duty. Based on the rosters, that occurred for 23 shifts in September.
The rosters revealed the department was rarely staffed by a full complement of firefighters for the 60 shifts in the month, and there were many days in which multiple people were off.
Among the findings:
• There were seven days in which five of 17 firefighters, or nearly 30 percent, of the platoon, were off on either the day or night shift. For the 16-member platoons, there were eight days in which four firefighters, or 25 percent, were off either the day or night shift.
• Other days also saw staff shortages. For instance, for the two 17-member platoons, there were 10 days in which three members, or roughly 18 percent, were off, and five days in which two members, or roughly 12 percent, were off. There was not a single day in which there was full complement of 17.
• For the 16-member platoons, there were six days in which three members, or nearly 19 percent, were off and eight days in which two firefighters, or 12.5 percent, were off.
• The staffing shortages required the city to call firefighters in for overtime for six shifts in September.
An analysis of the rosters shows most of absences were due to vacation days and sick days.
At least one person called in sick (non-work related) on 37 of the 60 shifts in September, the rosters show. On several days , two or three called in sick on same shift. There was at least one person on vacation for 43 of the 60 shifts.
Mike Bilski, president of the firefighters union, said firefighters have worked with the city to address staffing issues. In the latest contract signed this summer, for instance, they agreed to limit the number of men off on vacation to three per day, instead of four that were previously allowed.
Bilski said there's only so much they can do, however, as they are entitled to their vacation time. With 68 firefighters, it's difficult to maneuver scheduling of vacation days to fit everyone in a year.
Under the union contract, firefighters hired before Jan. 1, 2004 are entitled to 15 to 23 vacation days, while those hired after then get 12 to 22 days.
For sick days, firefighters with one to 15 years of service get 15 days, increasing to up to 21 days for members with 21 or more years of service. They can accumulate up to 130 sick days.
Bilski, who was advised of the newspaper's analysis Friday afternoon, said he does not know the circumstances surrounding the number of firefighters who called off sick in September and could not say if the number was unusually high.
"I'd have to compare it to other months. In the summer it's probably less," he said.
Bilski said firefighters self monitor sick calls to try to spot any patterns that might indicate abuse. Nothing has been brought to his attention this year by any or the rank and file, or by city officials.
Leighton said he is not insinuating there are abuses and stressed he respects the job firefighters do.
He has raised the issue of extensive absences to help explain his recent decision to cut minimum manning for 12 firefighters to 11 per shift. The change, which he says won't affect safety, was needed to reduce overtime costs.
"People don't understand minimum manning," he said. "The public needs to know, we are paying people who aren't there."