The Owen Sound fire station.
With arbitration hearings set to resume in mid-March, Owen Sound council has unanimously confirmed its support for reducing from five to four the minimum number of firefighters that must be on duty at all times at the city’s fire hall.Mayor Ian Boddy said the motion is the most significant attempt by council in at least a decade to lessen the city’s fire services costs, which are expected to be about $5.2 million this year or roughly 17 per cent of its overall budget.“It’s all about saving money for the taxpayers. So much of our overtime budget for firefighters goes towards making sure that we’ve got five men there all the time,” he said Monday in an interview.Council’s request would not reduce the number of firefighters employed by the city – it is not proposing a change to the now-required staff complement of 26 – so the move is aimed at lowering overtime costs, which were $181,000 in 2017 and $89,000 in 2018.“I don’t see it much as a change in service at all because it isn’t that we’re going to four on a shift all the time. It’s where if someone gets sick and we can’t fill in. And it will be a savings because of that overtime,” Boddy said.Patrick Burke, a consultant retained by the Owen Sound Professional Fire Fighters’ Association Local 531, said in a report that council’s proposed reduction would “have a negative impact on the safety of the firefighters on the initial response.”The association is requesting that arbitrators leave the minimum on-duty number as is and increase the overall staffing complement from 26 to 28, which Burke said “would provide an increased level of safety for the on-duty responding firefighters by having the availability of six firefighters for most shifts.”The last three-year collective agreement between the city and Local 531, which was also decided by an arbitrator in 2015, expired Dec. 31, 2014.Negotiations for a new contract, which would be effective Jan. 1, 2015, went to interest arbitration last fall, with the first hearings in front of a three-person panel held in September, October and November.The next hearings are March 16 and 17, with several dates also set aside in late March and early April.John Saunders of the law firm Hicks Morley, which is representing the city at arbitration, told council at a special meeting Thursday that the only issues still outstanding relate to staffing levels.The last collective agreement says at least five firefighters – a captain and four fire suppression staff – must be on duty at all times and there shall also be a staff complement at the fire hall of 26 firefighters.There must also be five firefighters on standby duty at all times to respond to each second-alarm occurrence, which includes all confirmed fires. All other city firefighters and Inter Township firefighters are called in to assist for the most serious calls.In 2018, the previous city council retained KCB Inc. to conduct an assessment of Owen Sound Fire & Emergency Services and recommend ways for the service to be run more efficiently while continuing to meet the city’s fire protection requirements.One of the top recommendations was for the city to “consider” reducing from five to four the minimum number of on-duty fire suppression staff at its fire hall.The report noted that if the change were approved, current firefighting guidelines state that on-scene crews should wait for a fifth firefighter to arrive before entering a structure during a fire.KCB recommended the city weigh the risks of altering their first response capabilities against the associated financial benefits of reducing the minimum staffing before striving to change the collective agreement.Council voted in July to direct city officials to make “best efforts” to implement the report’s recommendations.Jody Long of Local 531 said at the time that the organization believes it would be a “public safety issue” to reduce the minimum on-duty staffing levels from five to four.City manager Wayne Ritchie said Monday that with a new council in place and more arbitration talks scheduled, the city’s legal counsel was seeking a motion that reconfirmed council’s support for seeking the reduction.Deputy-mayor Brian O’Leary said he is aware that if four firefighters arrive at a blaze, there will be some reduction in service until the second-alarm crew arrives. But he said he has concluded that a minimum on-duty complement of four would still be sufficient for Owen Sound.“As I campaigned last fall, I heard over and over again that having a minimum staffing of four full-time professional firefighters on duty at all times was a level of service that taxpayers would not only accept but, in fact, expected,” he said, before introducing the reduction motion.Saunders told council that in most other Ontario communities, minimum on-duty staffing levels are established as policies that can be changed by council or the fire chief.But that’s not the case in Owen Sound.“You cannot because it’s baked right into your collective agreement. You have to get it changed through interest arbitration because your full-time fire association will never decrease that number, guaranteed. That will never be negotiated down. That’s why we’re in interest arbitration right now,” he said.He said Owen Sound’s $214 per capita cost for its fire service is the second highest amongst Ontario municipalities with populations under 30,000.“Strictly on a monetary or financial basis, there’s a demonstrated need for you to lower your costs of providing fire services in this community,” he said.When factoring in shifts missed due to sick leave, illnesses, vacations and lieu time, the city is forced to spend “gobs of money” on overtime to meet the five on-duty requirement at all times, he said.“That’s the challenge. All we’re trying to do is to cut down on the overtime usage,” he said.He noted that about 60 per cent of the Owen Sound fire department’s calls in 2017 were responded to by three or less firefighters.The association’s proposal of increasing the staffing complement to 28 would reduce overtime costs, but it would cost about $280,000 a year in wages and benefit costs, he said.