Every day, about 15 firefighters take unplanned time off from work at the Fort Worth Fire Department.
Four firefighters staff each fire company — a single emergency response unit. When one calls out, they’re replaced by another firefighter using overtime.
On April 11, Chief Jim Davis announced a staffing directive to cut down on those overtime hours. Instead of paying for someone to fill in for the full 24-hour shift, the department staffs fire companies with three firefighters for the first five hours of the shift, and pays for a replacement for the remaining 19 hours.
City management is supportive of Davis’ decision and believes it is consistent with the department’s current collective bargaining agreement, Assistant City Manager Valerie Washington said.
IAFF 440, the union representing Fort Worth firefighters, said the new policy is dangerous and ignores the need for four workers when responding to urgent calls. As the union continues meeting with city officials to approve a new collective bargaining agreement, staffing has become a major item of discontent.
“What citizen or neighborhood is going to be subjected to minimal staffing?” IAFF 440 President Michael Glynn asked city administrators during a collective bargaining meeting May 20.
City, union disagree on new staffing policy
Glynn and IAFF 440 submitted a grievance to the fire department April 12, arguing the new policy violated multiple provisions in the collective bargaining agreement.
Under Article 17, Section 2 of the current agreement, fire companies can be temporarily reduced to three persons “if a firefighter assigned to work on an apparatus is off duty using available leave for reasons involving assigned departmental business that include but are not limited to attending training, serving as an instructor, taking a drug test, etc for up to five hours including travel time.”
Davis denied the grievance April 25.
In his denial letter to Glynn, Davis said his directive was consistent with the agreement’s language and within his rights as chief.
“The language is very specific when it speaks to approved leave,” Davis said. “We are seeing a significant increase in overtime where I am looking for savings to balance the budget.”
What does the collective bargaining agreement say about sick or family leave?
- According to Article 28, firefighters can only take sick or family leave in cases of “bona fide incapacitation, illness or injury of the employee or eligible family member.”
- It explicitly states this leave cannot be used for personal convenience or extra time off.
Glynn said the language has never been used to justify a short-staffing policy like this before, and was intended for when a firefighter took five hours or less off, not an entire day. The language in the agreement has been in place for multiple bargaining cycles.
“The city is trying to take advantage of what it believes is a loophole,” Glynn said.
Davis said the solution is not a perfect one, and he as fire chief “completely and totally” supports four-person staffing. However, utilizing short-staffing is necessary to cut down on overtime hours.
“One solution may be to require documentation for all uses of sick leave and family leave in order to ensure that such leave is being used appropriately,” Davis wrote in his denial letter.
Outside firm conducting staffing analysis
The dispute over short-staffing fire companies comes as a third-party firm is studying the department’s staffing and operations to provide recommendations to the city over the next 10 years.
The city hired Citygate Associates, LLC, in February to complete five tasks as part of the staffing study:
- Complete a comprehensive risk assessment
- Analyze deployment staffing, scheduling and operations
- Analyze fire station locations and response times
- Analyze EMS service delivery
- Conduct any other recommended analyses
Citygate has previously conducted studies for eight departments in California, and is working on staffing analysis for Portland, Oregon. In its proposal to the city, the company lauded its work for the Orange County Fire Authority, where it recommended using floating fire trucks during key times at key areas, instead of building more fire stations. Also, for Santa Monica, Citygate recommended a non-fire medical unit for areas with a high volume of non-urgent calls.
The $265,027 contract came after continued disputes between the city manager’s office and the fire union over how many firefighters should be hired by the city. A June 24, 2021 report from Davis recommended adding 50 new positions every year for the next five years, a move he said would decrease overtime, helping to reduce fatigue and resiliency problems.
Davis echoed his concerns about overtime in his denial of Glynn’s grievance. There, Davis wrote that one of the reasons for implementing the staffing model was the amount of overtime due to what he called “excessive, unplanned call offs” by firefighters.
Call volumes have continued to increase since 2011, along with response times. After comparing the department to others in Austin, Charlotte, Oklahoma City and Indianapolis, Davis said in his report Fort Worth needed a total of 254 additional firefighters to support the current 953 workers.
The city manager’s office put the brakes on any plans to increase staffing until a comprehensive study was completed. Now, the union is pushing for arbitration over the three-crew staffing policy.
“We’re working with the city attorney’s office and the fire department on what our next steps are going to be,” Washington said when asked if the city would move forward with arbitration. “I know we hope to move forward with our plan and strategy by the end of the week.”
Citygate analysis will play into bargaining negotiations
The city will receive its first project briefing June 9. The briefing will include data models, draft findings and emerging recommendations, per Citygate’s contract. Stakeholders, including city administration and fire department officials, will be given the opportunity to fact-check any of the initial results and data and bring up any additional research needs.
Citygate will create a draft report and then a final report to present to the City Council and the fire department. That final report will be used to determine allocations to the fire department in the coming fiscal year, particularly around staffing.
“Keep in mind that the study horizon is 10 years, which means all recommendations will not be targeted for implementation in FY2023,” Mark McAvoy, director of planning and data analytics for the city, said in a statement.
The results of the study will also impact the collective bargaining process, Washington said.
“We believe that Citygate will likely weigh in on three- to four-person staffing,” she said. “We also believe that they may offer some suggestions on how to better respond to medical calls. I think the 440 and I have both been open about that possibility. And there are a couple of articles that we’ve sort of been a little slow to discuss because we are expecting Citygate to potentially offer some recommendations that may impact our conversations.”
In the meantime, Davis has expressed willingness to hear alternative solutions to the issue of overtime and short-staffing from IAFF 440.
“I am willing to consider such proposals, regardless of if this grievance goes to arbitration,” he wrote in his denial letter. “A successful resolution may reduce the department’s need for continued reliance on this staffing model…”
Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.
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