Fire chief pushes for schedule change; council split on decision

Published 11:24 pm Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Austin City Council will once again decide whether to change the city fire department’s employee scheduling.

Austin Fire Chief Mickey Healey.

Austin Fire Chief Mickey Healey.

Council members voted 4-3 to bring a motion to the council’s next public meeting on switching the Austin Fire Department’s scheduling from an alternating night- and day-shift schedule to a 24 hours on/48 hours off schedule. Council members Steve King, Jeremy Carolan (a part-time firefighter), Janet Anderson and Judy Enright voted to put the issue on the next public meeting agenda, while Roger Boughton, Jeff Austin, and Michael Jordahl wanted to have more time to consider the issue.

The council was torn during an almost 45-minute discussion about the issue, which has come up repeatedly since before Fire Chief Mickey Healey was hired in 2010.

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Under the current schedule, full-time firefighters operate on a nine-day schedule. They are required to report in for 10 hours, or from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., for three days, followed by three days of 14-hour shifts from 5 p.m. to 7 a.m., and then three days off. Part-time firefighters work under a similar nine-day schedule, as they’re split into three tiers and called in based on which shift their group is assigned.

Healey and other firefighters have recently told city officials and council members a recent increase of injuries and vacation time requested will leave the department undermanned toward the end of this month, with only one full-time firefighter at the city firehouse for several days unless some employees were paid to work overtime.

Healey came before the council during its work session Monday to once again ask for the department to switch to a 24/48 schedule, where full-time employees work 24 hours straight starting at 7 a.m., then have two days off, while part-time employees will be the first to get called on their scheduled day, then fall into second- and third-group rankings for the next two days. Healey told the council he was “adamantly against” the 10/14 scheduling, calling it a nightmare.

“I know it’s been used in other areas, and it hasn’t worked for other … fire departments,” Healey said. “Everybody else has been switched back.”

Healey approached the city last week with the request, saying the switch would help alleviate the department’s upcoming scheduling snafu, benefit firefighters by using a simpler schedule and could potentially save overtime costs for the city. He has requested the switch several times in the past, and council members discussed fire department scheduling in 2009 under former Fire Chief Dan Wilson’s recommendation to switch to a 10/14 shift.

City Administrator Jim Hurm told the council that city officials had a few reservations with the scheduling switch. While full-time firefighters work about 2,912 hours each year, a scheduling shift could decrease the number of “engaged hours,” or hours spent doing various duties. Firefighters also sometimes get paid to sleep or take breaks while on duty during down time.

The city estimated firefighters currently put in about 1,815 engaged hours each year, assuming employees are engaged all the time during 10-hour shifts and about five hours during 14-hour shifts. Hurm and other city officials estimate firefighters would only work about 11 engaged hours during a 24-hour shift, or about 1,331 hours per year.

Hurm said the city wants to know whether the switch would decrease costs for the city, whether the city would have to pay additional overtime (firefighters already have three hours of overtime each week built into their schedule), whether the city would have to hire more full-time employees and how the fire department would address the decrease in engaged hours.

Healey dismissed the city’s estimates, saying the city would still pay the same employee hours under either schedule and argued firefighters are consistently engaged, even if they’re resting.

“The same number of days are being worked, all year long,” he said. “You don’t stop if you’re resting.”

Scheduling the issue

Carolan, King and Anderson initially urged the council to proceed with what they said was an easy decision, based on past discussions on the schedule. King, the son of a longtime Austin firefighter, said the current schedule places an undue toll on firefighters’ health as they switch working days and nights.

“That’s hard on the body,” King said. “It’s ridiculous, it’s unsafe, and it doesn’t cost the city any money [to switch schedules].”

King further explained the council would follow the advice of any other department head when it came to scheduling matters.

“I can’t see another department in the city that would challenge on scheduling,” he said.

Other council members argued they didn’t have enough time to research the matter. Boughton, Austin and Jordahl were concerned the council was acting too hastily.

“I feel like this is being railroaded through,” Boughton said.

The issue was added under the work session reports as Healey brought it before city officials last week, and Hurm said city staff didn’t have enough time to research how the scheduling switch could affect the city. Mayor Tom Stiehm thought the matter should go before the council as a preliminary discussion and have it added to the agenda, though council members and the Herald weren’t provided with preliminary research until Monday night.

Stiehm said he supported Healey’s request, as Healey had done a good job running the department thus far and few, if any, problems have arisen in the year and a half since the fire chief last asked for a scheduling switch.

“You just let your chief run the department,” Stiehm said.

Austin wasn’t as confident in the decision, telling other council members the vote could have adverse effects not just for firefighters but for other city departments.

“If we deal with this issue, we are going to feel some repercussions throughout all departments in the city,” Austin said. “Good, bad or indifferent, I think we’re going to hear from other departments in this regard, so to jump to a conclusion tonight is not prudent in my eyes.”

King said the council could risk negatively affecting fire department morale and showing a lack of confidence in the department.

“To me, this is a smack right in their face if you say, ‘I’m not willing to change it,’” King said. “There’s not a dime of difference. … The reality is, citizens are safer, the department is safer, the guys are better at what they’re doing, continuing the good morale at no cost to the city.”

Council members will vote on the issue at the next public meeting. Austin and Boughton said a vote so soon left council members little time to ask questions before the public meeting, which the council traditionally uses to pass motions and resolutions on issues they’ve already discussed. King and Anderson pointed out that council members could seek guidance from city staff until March 18, the next time the council meets.

The council came under scrutiny several years ago for its involvement in the fire department scheduling, among other matters. Several council members, including King, Anderson and former council member Marian Clennon, which eventually led to reports in 2010 criticizing the fire department’s lack of organizational structure and the city council’s over-involvement in fire department affairs, among other issues. Former Fire Chief Dan Wilson retired from the city at the end of January 2010.