Cincinnati City Fire Union is Opposed to Plan

Cincinnati, OH -- Cincinnati's firefighter union is opposing a compromise plan by city officials that was used for the past 10 days to end "brown outs" at some fire stations by temporarily reducing the size of some crews.

Union leaders will appear today in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court to seek a temporary restraining order against the plan's further use.

Their action comes after the membership of Cincinnati Firefighters Union Local 48 voted Thursday to reject the plan. Union leaders didn't release how many members voted, but described the tally as unanimous.

"I'm disappointed," said City Council Member David Crowley, who helped broker the compromise. "I wish they had been able to appreciate that while the compromise wasn't totally satisfying, it is better than having brown outs."

In late September, Fire Chief Robert Wright began using brown outs as a method to curb overtime costs, which were putting the Fire Department on pace to exceed its budget by $2.4 million this year.

The brown outs reduced the number of available pumpers and ladder trucks. Instead of having two vehicles, each with four-person crews, some stations had only one at certain times.

For example, brown outs meant if a pumper truck wasn't staffed at a downtown fire station and one was required to fight a fire in that area, a pumper would have to respond from another station -- which could be several miles away.

Firefighters and neighborhood activists complained that brown outs were increasing response times and jeopardizing public safety. One business owner in Oakley blamed the delay for the loss of his building to a fire.

Under the recent compromise, some fire crews were reduced by one position, allowing three-person crews to respond to emergencies in certain cases.

The plan lets fire stations that have both a ladder truck and a water-pumping truck to keep both vehicles staffed and available for calls.

The city's contract with the union requires that crews have four people except during certain emergency situations.

After discussions with union leaders, Wright and City Manager Valerie Lemmie invoked that clause Oct. 10 to end the brown outs.

Rank-and-file members, however, balked at the proposal.

"Looking at statistics, three-man crews aren't any safer than brown outs," said Doug Stern, a union spokesman.

Studies indicate that ladder trucks staffed by four people are 66 percent more efficient than those with three-person crews, and water-pumping trucks are 73 percent more efficient, Stern said.

Also, the studies indicate it takes about 80 percent longer to initiate rescue operations with a three-person crew compared to one with four people, he added.

The statistics are so persuasive, Stern said, that one industry group -- the International Fire Chiefs Association -- recommends using five-person crews.

Additionally, the contract provision was meant to cover situations where a firefighter has to leave his post unexpectedly to handle an emergency, not to reduce overtime spending, union leaders said.

"It's in violation of our contract," Stern said. "The contract talks about an unanticipated situation, and there's been debate back and forth about what unanticipated means."

When the compromise was announced, union President Joe Diebold issued a statement giving his lukewarm support.

"We understand that budget shortfalls have placed this city in a precarious situation. However, we intend to work with Mr. Crowley and the city to remedy the current situation of staffing some fire companies with three firefighters," Diebold wrote.

Crowley and some City Council members were frustrated with the turnabout.

"At least the seven-man houses, as I called them, kept units intact for the most part," Crowley said. "But I cannot deny (the union) the right to file a grievance. That's the beauty of the democratic process."

Council Member David Pepper noted that City Council assured the union that brown outs and three-person crews were temporary solutions for the next few months, and neither would be used during the 2005-2006 budget cycle.

"It's too bad. I thought we had come to a pretty good, creative agreement to avoid brown outs, and I hope the agreement holds," Pepper said.

"I'm sure the union is concerned about a precedent for next year, that it would be some kind of permanent approach," Pepper said. "No one wants that, and we've said very loudly and very clearly that we're not going to do that."