PLATTSBURGH — If the Plattsburgh Fire Department switches to eight-hour shifts, as suggested by the mayor, it would be the only department in the state operating that way.
City Mayor Donald Kasprzak thinks the change from 24-hour shifts would save money, but the firefighters union says it would have the opposite effect.
The department comprises 36 firefighters, with four nine-member platoons that work 24-hour shifts with three days off in between.
Kasprzak thinks the city could save about $300,000 in the $5.4 million department by changing to eight-hour shifts — and he believes it would be safer for all.
“Who would want to go fight a major fire at 2 a.m. when they have been working for 20 hours and are dog-tired?” the mayor said.
“It’s just not safe.”
But Plattsburgh Permanent Firefighters Association President Terry Feazelle sees it differently.
He said 24-hour shifts are not an issue for trained professionals.
“It’s like anything else — you get used to it, and it doesn’t bother you.”
UP FOR DISCUSSION
Feazelle said the city has never officially asked to remove 24-hour shifts and that, if it did, the union would listen.
“It’s a nice sound byte, but we have seen nothing in writing,” he said.
He noted that the union has gone since 2008 without a new contract, as differences on many issues remain unresolved.
“If this was just about our schedule, we would have a contract.”
Feazelle thinks that if the city moved to eight- or even 10-hour shifts, it would cost more because of hold-over pay. Hold-over pay would come into effect if a new platoon came on duty and the previous crew was still out on a call that came in near the end of their eight-hour shift.
The department responds annually to about 3,200 ambulance calls and about 800 fire calls, many of which are actually for a fire truck to go assist the ambulance crews.
The number of actual major structure fires the department deals with is low: five in 2010, seven in 2011 and four in 2012.
The mayor says the hold-over pay argument is nonsense. He said the city did indeed ask for removal of 24-hour shifts in contract talks and that he believes the real reason the union won’t budge has nothing to do with hold-over pay.
“They won’t go to eight-hour shifts because they are more concerned about their second job,” Kasprzak said.
The mayor has criticized the firefighters for working a total of about 70 days per year each, which gives them time to hold a second job — he sees that as a luxury that most working people do not have.
Feazelle takes umbrage with that.
“What is wrong with wanting to work hard at two jobs to try to take care of your family?” he said.
“That’s the American Dream everywhere but here, I guess.”
MOST ON 24-HOUR SHIFTS
The New York State Professional Firefighters Association represents 104 career, professional, paid fire departments and 18,000 firefighters in the state.
President Michael McManus said about 75 to 80 percent of those departments utilize 24-hour shifts.
He said an in-depth study showed that 24-hour shifts are better than 10- or 14-hour shifts, and he does not know of any eight-hour shifts in the state.
“I’ve never heard of them (eight-hour shifts) working,” he said.
McManus said a major drawback to eight-hour shifts is that there would be more sick time taken in three eight-hour shifts than in one 24-hour shift.
“You would have three shift turnovers, and with just one shift turnover, there is less sick time taken,” he said.
He also said that with eight-hour shifts, you would have 21 people working in a 24-hour period with seven-member platoons, which is significantly higher than just seven firefighters on for the entire day.
“You got all that payroll to do,” McManus said.
“It seems like they are trying to re-create the wheel here, and it is out of whack in this day and age.”