Overtime costs a problem for EFR

November 8, 2012

By Caleb Heeringa

In what’s becoming an annual tradition, Eastside Fire & Rescue could temporarily understaff or even close stations to deal with a shortfall in its overtime budget in the coming months.

The issue has led to an unfair labor practice charge from EFR firefighter’s union, International Association of Firefighters Local 2878.

Union members worry that temporarily shrinking units from the standard minimum of three full-time firefighters to two could lead to a nightmare scenario – firefighters unable to enter a burning building with people trapped inside, for example. State law forbids firefighters to enter a structure fire unless three people are on scene.

“It’s a roll of the dice,” EFR Chief Lee Soptich said of understaffing or closing stations to save money. “You may have no calls during that time or you may have 10 calls; they could all be non-emergencies or they could all be life-threatening.”

While the agency has thus far been able to avoid a calamity, Sammamish has felt the impact of the understaffing – Station 81 on 212th Avenue was closed for 24 hours last December because the agency was out of overtime funds.

Deputy Chief Greg Tryon said the agency only had one incident during that period that had a longer-than-normal wait time for first responders. A non-emergency aid call and where responders took an additional 40 seconds. But for homeowners towards the south end of East Lake Sammamish Parkway, it could have meant an extra three minutes or more wait.

The maxing out of the overtime budget led the agency to use two-man crews at various stations eight times in 2010 and five times in 2011.

Soptich said it appears the agency will have to understaff again in 2012 – recent projections put the agency at $30,000 over its $507,000 annual overtime budget.

But Soptich and union president Craig Hooper both express optimism that a solution is on the horizon – whether by more carefully monitoring vacation rules for firefighters or giving the Soptich more leeway to redirect unspent funds to the overtime budget.

Hooper said the union and administration have traded proposals and will hopefully reach consensus without having to go into a potentially costly arbitration process.

The union has only gone to arbitration with the agency over one issue in recent years – the dismissal of a battalion chief several years ago. The two sides reached a settlement in the first day, but the process still cost the agency approximately $30,000.

“I think both sides know that (arbitration) is not a good thing with all the costs involved,” Hooper said. “Typically no one wins in arbitration … you lose relationships.”

Mayor Tom Odell, one of Samm-amish’s two representatives on the EFR board, said he was hopeful that the overtime budget could be held in check by tweaks to the agency’s staffing model and vacation policies. He compared it to a business owner being more careful when scheduling employees.

“We should make sure we have the right number of people in the right job classifications around,” Odell said. “If they’re all (on vacation) at the same time that’s when it starts hurting us as far as overtime.”

Soptich said the administration is looking at ways to staff more efficiently, but much of the stress on the overtime budget stems from issues that are out of the agency’s control – family medical leave and disabilities, for example.

Soptich said he’s hopeful that the board will embrace a proposal put forward by the union – that he be given authority to direct 10 percent of any surplus funds towards overtime if need be.

Soptich said that he had that sort of authority in the earlier years of the agency, but the board’s policy in recent years has been that he stay within budget and bring any additional expenditures to them for approval.

The board has a policy of maintaining one-twelfth of its annual budget as a rainy day fund – an estimated $1.85 million in 2013.

The agency is projected to have about $330,000 in reserves left on top of that, though $133,654 of that is slated to go into the agency’s general fund in 2013 to balance the budget and limit the increase in each partner’s contribution to the agency.

Soptich pointed out that the board has the authority to spend from its reserves to avoid understaffing stations.

The board is scheduled to approve the overtime budget as part of its larger 2013 budget at 4 p.m. Nov. 8 at EFR headquarters, 175 Newport Way N.W. in Issaquah.

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