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.

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Comments

5 Responses to “Some EFR fire stations temporarily understaffed, again”

  1. Mike Jones on December 30th, 2012 6:43 pm

    Perhaps one of these days the public will realize how ridiculous it is that we are paying these firefighter’s $140k salaries and still they manage to overspend their budget by $50k AND decrease our service level. I’m tired of the IAFF bullying taxpayers. Every other industry is financially tapped and having to do more with less but somehow the fire service manages to take more than their fair share and then turn around and cry about safety when the money runs out and the service level suffers. Fire service privatization anyone?

  2. Bob on December 30th, 2012 10:38 pm

    Doesn’t Eastside Fire have volunteers? Do they even try to get people, who are willing to do the job for free, to come in and cover for sick career guys, or does the union not like that?

  3. George W on January 2nd, 2013 8:42 am

    Eastside Fire does have volunteers and to answer your question no they do not fill career shifts with volunteers, the union will not allow it. The department can’t fill a UNION worker’s spot with a volunteer, it must be OVERTIME for a UNION member. Hense the overspending of the OT budget. The department likes to talk a big game to the politicians about the volunteer program however the union won’t let the volunteers do much of anything without their say so. Not to mention any career firefighter will tell you that a volunteer is not even close to comparable in skills or experience to a career firefighter even though the department will allow a stand alone volunteer unit to respond to calls in some circumstances… so the department says they are qualified but the union members don’t… (another way to protect their union jobs). My question is how much money does EFR put into volunteers: uniforms, training, protective gear, etc. and would that make up the difference in the budget? If the volunteers are not being used to maintain or increase the service level provided by the department then why are we wasting money one them. I’m tired of the IAFF union bullying the administration and costing us money.

  4. Luke Gilbertson on January 2nd, 2013 8:38 pm

    Mike Jones: I would to see where you get your data for 140K salaries. Next time before you post a rant, try to at least have factual data to back it up. Why don’t you look into some of the privatization issues that have occured in Arizona or Tenesses and other places that have tried it. Here is just one example:

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/39516346/ns/us_news-life/t/no-pay-no-spray-firefighters-let-home-burn/

    Be careful what you wish for… You get what you pay for…

  5. James Williams on January 5th, 2013 10:13 pm

    Mr. Gilbertson- I agree with you that Mr. Jone’s salary number lacks accuracy however he makes a good point. I think you will find that for every negative example you find for fire service privatization you will find another positive. Like this one:

    http://news.heartland.org/newspaper-article/2006/04/01/privatized-fire-district-keeps-costs-low-and-service-high

    I agree with your statement and you do get what you pay for and just as in your example those people did not pay for it so they didn’t get it. That is how it should be. The firefighters union in this area has far too much power and they hide behind the excuses of safety instead of meeting the needs of the communities they serve for a reasonable price.

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