An arbitrator has determined the Lockport Fire Department’s six-man shifts are unsafe and is requiring the City of Lockport to restore minimum staffing levels of nine firefighters, which means the city will have to hire 12 firefighters to obtain the ordered minimum staffing level.
In 2014, former Mayor Anne McCaffrey had dropped the fire department’s ambulance service amid the city’s financial distress and cut the department’s minimum staffing levels from nine to six members per shift. The Lockport Professional Firefighters Association sued to restore the staffing level to nine per shift, and after an administrative law judge ruled against the city, it was determined that both sides had to negotiate the issue, which they did by seeking out arbitrators.
Michael Lewandowksi, an impartial arbitrator, delivered a decision Thursday that the city had violated the union’s collective bargaining agreement by unilaterally reducing LFD’s minimum manning, finding that the residents would be safer with higher staffing levels.
“The decision of the former administration to unilaterally reduce fire department manpower was ill-conceived and inevitably left our firefighters and residents at risk,” Mayor Michelle Roman said. “The prior administration’s actions, and failure to create a contingency plan, has placed the city in further economic turmoil.”
Roman plans to start discussing with the union how to go about hiring, and seeing if this is something that can be done gradually. She added that her administration will be exploring any potential grant opportunities to help with the cost of hiring the firefighters.
In the arbitration decision, the union and the city lay out their arguments in more detail, with union members arguing that the reduced staffing threatened firefighter safety and city officials arguing that the city didn’t have the money to support the staffing levels.
Former Firefighter Union President Sam Oakes argued that a ladder truck is essentially out of service when staffing is low because there is insufficient manpower to staff the ladder truck. Oakes cited a fire on Remmick Street that resulted in a delay of three to five minutes, noting that a fire can quickly spread in a matter of minutes.
“All of the witnesses at hearing in this matter were clear on one point, every additional minute a fire is allowed to burn before initial attack is commenced significantly increases the risk to firefighter safety,” Lewandowski wrote.
Union officials also argued that no technological, geographic or relevant factors had presented themselves to change the nature of foreground safety and that reduced staffing is not safe.
The city, under McCaffrey’s administration, argued that the city simply did not have the money to pay for the 12 firefighters that were laid off. Finance Director Scott Schrader told the arbitrator that the city had a negative fund balance of $5 million in 2013, and that had the city not taken drastic measures in 2014, it would have run out of cash and been unable to make payroll. City officials also argued reduced staffing was not unsafe because no injuries were sustained since the lay offs.
Lewandowski said that safety record “can change with the next fire.”
“It is the assessment of what level is necessary to assure safety in the future that is appropriate,” he added.
Corporation Counsel Allen Miskell said the city most likely won’t appeal the decision as the basis for an appeal “is very limited in scope.” He added that fraud or misapprehension of the facts are really the only grounds for an appeal. Roman noted the city spent over $300,000 litigating the case, and the money could have gone to “lots of things, including keeping some of the firemen.”
“The whole process was done without proper negotiations and following contracts,” Roman added.
The city will now be faced with finding the revenue to hire the additional firefighters.
“As always, my administration will tackle the problems as they arise. In the coming days, we will begin negotiating with our fire union to minimize the immediate financial impact of this decision. Further, we are working with state and federal agencies to seek grants for personnel and equipment. Lastly, my administration will actively work to create new revenue streams to effectuate the employment of a fully staffed fire department,” Roman said in a release.
Roman is considering bringing back the ambulance service in an effort to help raise revenue for these hires.
“It is estimated that a properly functioning ambulance service can generate upward of 50 percent of the fire department’s budget,” Roman said. “It will also provide a much needed and reliable service to our residents.”
Roman will also work with local municipalities to launch a new program aimed at billing insurance companies for emergency services rendered at motor vehicle accidents. This program has generated hundreds of thousands of dollar per year in new revenue for neighboring municipalities, according to Roman.
“The arbitrator’s decision has finally ended a long, arduous and expensive battle between the city and its fire union. We cherish our fire department and its personnel and we thank them for their selfless dedication to the safety of our city and our residents. I look forward to forging a new path of cooperation with them while working together to implement the changes directed by the arbitrator,” Roman said. “This decision is a much needed reminder that, in order for our city to prosper, we all must work together.”
McCaffrey declined to comment, and Republican mayoral candidate David Wohleben could not be reached for comment.