Some EFR fire stations temporarily understaffed, again
December 30, 2012
By Caleb Heeringa
New: Dec. 30, 10:16 a.m.
A Sammamish fire station was one of two that was closed for 12 hours after Eastside Fire & Rescue’s budget for overtime pay ran low.
Station 81, 2030 212th Ave. S.E. in Sammamish, was closed from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Dec. 16. The agency also chose to close Station 72, on Maple Street in Issaquah, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Dec. 19. A third station – number 71, on Sunset Way in Issaquah – was staffed by two firefighters instead of the typical three for six hours on Dec. 14.
The closures and understaffing have become something of a holiday tradition at EFR. The agency’s overtime budget has in recent years become a lightning rod and a target for partners seeking to tighten the belt on the agency’s personnel costs.
“We’re trying to make the administration and union aware that this is not a fund they can keep coming to,” said Sammamish Mayor Tom Odell, one of the city’s two representatives on EFR’s board.
The agency has thus far avoided calamity – no houses have burned down because the nearest station was closed. But the closures have been an issue of contention with the union that represents the agency’s fire fighter, which filed an unfair labor practice charge. The agency’s administration has been in negotiations with the union over potential solutions, including more careful monitoring of vacation rules for firefighters, or giving Fire Chief Lee Soptich more freedom to maneuver unspent funds to overtime.
The partners granted those powers in September and Soptich said he was hopeful the extra $50,000 or so in unspent money could prevent closures this year, but a couple firefighters filing for long-term disability or family medical leave and an untimely cold going around fire stations complicated matters.
“The flu went through here like a bandit – we got hit real hard,” Soptich said.
Jon Wiseman, president of the firefighters union, said he and other firefighters want to see a more permanent solution to the problem rather than scrambling and closing stations every November and December. The agency sets its overtime budget every fall during budget negotiations for the following year.
“(Closures and understaffing) are a safety risk to citizens and firefighters,” Wiseman said.
The agency’s policy is to run one of its stations with two full-time firefighters compared to the typical three if one employee calls in sick. If the agency is understaffed by two positions, it will close a station and send the extra employee to a neighboring station. Four stations — in Issaquah Highlands, downtown North Bend, Carnation and Sammamish’s station on Issaquah-Pine Lake Road — are protected from staff reductions due to their high call volume, remoteness or important strategic locations. Closures rotate around the remaining stations.
Deputy Chief Greg Tryon said the administration looks at various factors when deciding whether to close a station or expend dwindling overtime dollars to bring an extra firefighter in, including upcoming weather events that could cause an increase in car accidents or power outages, or extra holiday traffic on the roads. Despite the fact that nothing bad has happened yet, Wiseman said the agency is playing with fire by closing stations.
“It’s scary to think what could happen if we get a big call when one of those stations are closed,” Wiseman said.