Bellevue firefighters go to court to protect jobs, OT

BELLEVUE A court-ordered injunction means, at least for now, it's business as usual at the Be
Cory Frolik
May 24, 2010

 

BELLEVUE

A court-ordered injunction means, at least for now, it’s business as usual at the Bellevue Fire Department.

Expect at least two men on station for at least the next 10 days.

Beginning in July, the city slashed the fire department’s overtime hours, which the department has used since spring 2008 for a second firefighter to cover one-third of the shifts.

The change resulted in only one firefighter being on duty about one out of every three days.

But the firefighter and lieutenant unions challenged the city’s decision on the grounds it violates the terms of their collective bargaining agreement.

While the city and unions wait for an arbitrator to rule on the matter, attorneys for the unions filed a motion asking for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the city, arguing that leaving only one firefighter on duty is a safety hazard.

“It’s a safety issue — our standard operating procedure, on most incidents, is to take two fire trucks, but you can’t do that with one person,” said Bellevue fire Lt. Will Hopkins, who is also the union steward for the lieutenants. “One person can’t go in and fight a fire by themselves. Even though we have part-time paid guys, who come in to help, there’s quite a delay. One man can’t set up a fire truck by himself, fight a fire or rescue a child on his own.”

Sandusky County Judge Barbara Ansted on Friday granted a temporary injunction until Aug. 21, at which time she is expected to hear the initial arguments for and against an extended injunction.

Union members are in favor of an injunction that would last until the arbitration is complete.

For more than 30 years, the Bellevue Fire Department had at least two firefighters on duty at all times.

Fire officials claim this practice is essential to best protecting firefighters and the community they serve. It also satisfies national firefighting standards, recommended by prominent fire safety agencies.

But in May 2008, claiming budget woes, the city eliminated the job belonging to firefighter Ben Mira. This reduced the fire department’s payroll to five people, not including the chief.

Six firefighters allowed the department to have two firefighters work in 24-hour periods in a three-shift rotation.

With only five firefighters, the only way to cover the third shift with two men required paying overtime.

The unions argue their collective bargaining agreement spells out the responsibility the city has to maintain safe working conditions for firefighters. Forcing one person to be alone on duty puts that firefighter at significant risk, they claim.

Firefighters also argue the city had no legal right to change the work schedules to deny overtime. They said their contracts structured their schedules in a particular way.

Mayor David Kile declined to comment for this story, saying it’s the city’s policy not to discuss “pending legal issues.”

But court documents show city officials contend no part of the firefighters’ contract guarantees overtime.

Article 33 of the contract states “when the employer determines overtime is necessary” — suggesting the employer is in control of deciding whether or not to permit overtime.

But two sections later, the contract states: “Fifty-three hours per week average over a nine-week period shall constitute the standard work week for all full-time employees. ... The standard work-day shall be 24 hours.”

Attorneys for both sides did not return calls Tuesday.