Committee reviews fire scheduling information

Published 10:40 am Wednesday, March 4, 2009

A special committee of the Austin City Council is reviewing information from local firefighters, concerning scheduling plans.

Austin First Ward Council Member Jeff Austin said members of the International Association of Fire Fighters local union submitted the information to Austin after a meeting Thursday, Feb. 12.

Austin, who chairs the committee, did not reveal the contents of the information.

Email newsletter signup

“We will study the information we received from the firefighters and make a recommendation to the Austin City Council when we’re done,” Austin said.

The committee requested the Feb. 12 meeting with firefighters to discuss scheduling in the Austin Fire Department.

The meeting, held in the conference room at the Austin Municipal Building, was attended by several local firefighters, plus state firefighters union representatives, as well as citizens.

At the end of 2008, the city changed the firefighters’ work schedule from a 24-hour shift schedule to a 10/14-hour shift schedule.

The change was met with resistance from firefighters, who said the city officials’ decision to remove firefighter coverage at the Austin Fire Station overnight presented a public safety hazard.

After only four days of the 10/14-shift schedule, the Austin City Council ordered the schedule be returned to the old 24-hour shift schedule.

A committee of the First Ward’s Austin, plus Second Ward Council Members Dick Pacholl and Steve King — both sons of former long-time Austin firefighters — sought to hear both sides in the heated controversy over fire department scheduling at the Feb. 19 meeting.

Austin Fire Chief Dan Wilson argued for the 10/14 shift idea.

He presented a detailed report how the 10/14 shift idea compared to a 40-hour work week schedule and the current 24-hour shift.

According to the Fire Chief, the 40-hour work week plan would provide coverage 7 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. while the two other plans would provide 24/7 coverage.

The chief said the 40-hour plan’s advantages include the most productive use of firefighters time, off-duty response time to emergencies and the largest crew size available during the day, when, statistics show, most emergencies occur.

The disadvantage of the 40-hour plan is what many have criticized: No overnight coverage.

According to Wilson, the advantages of the 10/14-shift plan are 24-hour coverage and off-duty response time.

The lone disadvantage is smaller crew size.

The one advantage of the 24-hour plan: 24/7 coverage.

The disadvantages: Fewer career personnel available for recall and smaller crew size.

Under the 40-hour plan, there would be 260 work days scheduled with 219-244 days worked.

According to the fire chief, the number of productive hours worked would be 17,928 or 100 percent of the possible work days.

There would be no additional employees and no additional expense under the 40-hour work week schedule.

The days scheduled, worked and hours of productivity decline under the 10/14 and 24-hour plans.

The fewest days scheduled, worked and number of productivity hours occurs under the 40-hour plan. The latter shows only 44 percent productivity hours compared to 84 percent for the 10/14 plan and 100 percent for the 40-hour plan.

The 10/14 plan would require the hiring of an additional employee at a cost of $60,500 to accomplish the amount of fire coverage sought.

The 24-hour plan would require hiring as few as eight and as many as 11 additional employees at an expense ranging from $494,000 to $683,650, plus overtime costs, according to the fire chief’s computations.

The city made the change-over from an all full-time paid fire department to a combination full-time and part-time paid department March 7, 1993.

The change-over was accomplished when 12 full-time paid firefighters took early retirement.

Today, the department has 10 full-time paid firefighters, including the fire chief, and 20-part-time paid firefighters.

The department operates with a budget of $1.26-million.

The 10/14-shift plan may be the most confusing. It involves a combination of 10-hour and 14-hour days and then having two days off.

The 10-hour days would be 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and the 14-hour days would be 5 p.m. to 7 a.m.

By law, the city cannot require its off-duty firefighters to remain within the city limits during days off work.

Since the Feb. 19 meeting, the fire chief has defended his argument the city cannot afford to offer 24-hour fire safety coverage. He also offers statistics showing less fire emergencies occur overnight than they do during the day.

He has not wavered from his stance.

“We can’t do business the old way,” Wilson said.

Former Mayor O’Rourke also stands behind the 1993 change-over and efforts to reduce the number of firefighters and maximize the productivity of the remaining city employees. “I think the change-over has worked adequately for the city,” O’Rourke said.

The city and its firefighters union have now gone more than a year without a new contract.

The Austin City Council is mired in the throes of dealing with deep reductions in Local Government Aid; an estimated $1.8-million reduction over the next two years.

The severity of the cuts coupled with the city’s dependence on LGA funding to deliver programs and services forces it to look at all city department, including public safety services.

All that and a fire department scheduling controversy, too.

First Ward council member Austin indicated it could take a “couple of weeks” to sort through the information being gathered concerning fire department scheduling.

He also speculated another meeting with representatives of the local firefighters union may be necessary before a recommendation is made to the Austin City Council.