(June 8, 2018) Fire department staffing matters have resulted in a shift in alarm responses, with an ambulance unit no longer included on responses to automatic fire alarms at high-rise buildings in Ocean City.
Ryan Whittington, president the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 4269, told the City Council on Monday that department policy had required both a fire engine and ambulance respond to automatic fire alarms at high-rise structures.
“In the past, our service delivery to a high-rise with an automatic fire alarm has never been disputed because it makes sense to send enough firefighters and EMTs to the scene,” he said. “Unfortunately, this service delivery is being reduced.”
Whittington said the service cutback was officially implemented last Thursday.
“What that means, if you live or stay in a high-rise building, you no longer get an ambulance on the scene on initial dispatch for an automatic fire alarm,” he said.
Ocean City Fire Chief Chris Larmore, said later in the week, that the changes apply only to responses for automatic fire alarms at structures seven stories or taller.
“Over 90 percent of these calls are not property or life hazards,” he said. “In the past, these calls only warranted a one-engine response.”
Larmore said the ambulance unit was added several years ago after a few instances where medical attention was requested by people evacuating high-rise buildings.
“After review, we believe that the infrequency of the need for an ambulance does not justify the response,” he said.
Whittington contended that the service modification was related to staffing issues partly brought about by the union’s new contract with the city.
The three-year labor agreement ratified by both parties last March instituted a new schedule that replaced the department’s long-time schedule of 24 hours on and 72 hours off with a new regimen of two 10-hour day shifts and two 14-hour night shifts, followed by four days off.
“In October 2017, with the new schedule that was implemented, your firefighters and paramedics informed you we didn’t think it was best for us, the department or the citizens that we serve and protect,” he said.
Whittington added that during this year’s budget hearings, Larmore said in addition to the schedule issue, that federal mandates and an overreliance on part-timers was causing a staffing shortage.
“In April 2018, our fire chief came before you and said he … required additional staff or you faced the possibility of potential reductions in services,” he said. “Tonight, I’m here to share with you your first reduction in services to the citizens and visitors.”
Larmore doesn’t see it that way and said the changes in the response matter grew from a review started in January to address an increased reliance on “out of crew,” personnel to answer the continually increasing number of offseason calls for service during 2017.
“These are not ‘reductions in service.’ In fact, they are reallocations to provide better service and ensure availability to those calls with a higher priority,” he said.
When all scheduled personnel are on calls, Larmore said “out of crew” members are contacted to assist.
“The idea … is to never be out of crews [but] it’s really a balancing act to make sure all your people are being utilized,” he said. “We don’t want two or three crews standing around.”
Although the city and fire union did agree on a contact, it wasn’t until after negotiations reached an impasse and were put back together at the last hour.
The impasse, which the union can’t breach under the current city code, led the union to launch a successful petition drive last year to put the question of binding interest arbitration on this November’s election ballot.
The voters will decide on Nov. 8 if Local 4269 should have the option of turning to an independent arbitrator if future labor negotiations reach an impasse.
On Monday, Whittington disputed reports that the fire department’s challenge to fill open shifts was tied to a handful of staff on medical leave.
“The five persons that were referenced by the town recently have not given dates when they will be out for the summer,” he said. “The number of open shifts, because those people are still on the schedule, is just going to get worse.”
Although some have argued union members need time to adjust to the new schedule, Whittington questioned that perspective and argued it was the source of current staffing problems.
“We have to face reality — it’s because of the new schedule implementation that requires double the number of staff members to report in any given day,” he said.