Gloucester Daily Times
---- — Deputy Fire Chief and firefighters union leader Steve Aiello calls the new contract between the city of Gloucester and its firefighters “a new beginning.”
And indeed it will be. When the restructuring component of the new deal — signed last Thursday at City Hall – finally kicks in a year from now, it will mean a lot of changes in terms of work schedules and the operation of the city’s stations and equipment.
But the agreement isn’t just a “new beginning” for Gloucester’s firefighters, it’s also a new beginning for the city and its residents. And it’s one for which all sides — first-year Fire Chief Eric Smith, Mayor Carolyn Kirk and Aiello and his fellow union negotiations and members — can all take immense credit. That’s because it should stabilize the department’s overtime costs and overall budget, and most importantly, it should finally allow for the opening and operation of all four city fire stations, from Central and West Gloucester to Bay View and Magnolia.
The new deal includes a 2 percent firefighters’ pay raise for the coming fiscal year, a figure parallel to the deal given the city’s two police unions earlier this spring. It also includes a provision for hiring a civilian mechanic to care for the department’s engines and vehicles, a task that firefighters have covered over the years, and a change that frankly should have come long ago.
But the core reform is a provison that will not take effect until July 1 — and it’s one that represents precisely the kind of restructuring the department has needed for some time.
The minimum manning provisions within the firefighters’ contract, while well-rooted in terms of work safety, have been enormous obstacles to staffing the outlying fire stations, since the pact requires that stations be shut down when fewer than 18 firefighters are available for any of four rotating shifts. The Magnolia station – which is almost never open — shuts down at fewer than 18, the department closes Bay View when the number drops below 16, and West Gloucester has to close if the number falls beneath 14.
Given that the city has roughly 72 firefighters who have long worked in four revolving shifts, that means there has been no flxeibility with 18 firefighters assigned per shift. As soon as one is out — for vacation time or due to sickness or injury — his shift would drop below 18. And the problem mushrooms from there.
The department often fills slots by bringing off-duty firefighters in on overtime — but that’s a costly and inconsistent way to do any business. And the result has been closed fire stations, overworked firefighters and a tapped-out budget for at least the last six years. It is, in effect, a system built to fail — and it may continue to do so off and on until July 1, 2014, when the new structure kicks in.
When it does, the department will align its 72 firefighters into three shifts of 24 firefighters each — well above the minimum manning mandates. The format is based in large part on the structure of the fire department Smith left in Westland, Mich., to come to take the reins of Gloucester’s department last summer.
To make the system work, the contract calls for a firefighter’s regular work week to cover up to 56 hours instead of the current 42. And that will be costly, with rumblings of a city price tag running up to $1 million. But that type of investment will at least give the fire chief, the mayor and other city officials to maintain stable budget projections, and it should virtually eliminate the need for regular overtime — let alone having to pump more and more city dollars into it as the year carried on.
If there is a disappointing aspect of the contract, it’s the fact that the shift restructuring will take a year to slide fully into place. The truth is, the city needs its stations open now, and we hope Chief Smith and union leaders will be able to phase in aspects of the plan after fiscal 2014 begins July 1.
But the truth is, this contract should indeed firm up the city’s Fire Department and better fire protection for residents in all parts of the city for years to come.
It is, in fact, the kind of “new beginning” Gloucester and its Fire Department has long needed. And it’s good to see the city and its firefighters agree to achieve that goal.