Fire Department Under Fire Over Closures When Workers Call In Sick

“Sorry … Temporarily Closed,” reads a post on the Buffalo fire union’s Facebook page letting people know that a particular fire company near them is closed on a given day because of a staffing model the Fire Department uses when too many firefighters call in sick.

“Citizens in that area please be advised that your coverage is diminished. Stay safe,” the post says.

The posts are one way the union is pushing back on the staffing model that allows the city to pull a fire company out of service if at least five firefighters – out of what it says are roughly 127 on any given shift – call in sick.

The practice allows the city to backfill the vacancies “efficiently” without incurring additional overtime costs, the fire commissioner said. But the union says the practice is putting citizens and firefighters at “heightened risk” and should be eliminated.

The union, however,  agreed to the model – called dynamic staffing – in its 2013 contract with the city.

“We hadn’t had a raise in 11 years. We probably would have agreed to anything to get that contract done,” said Vincent Ventresca, president of the Buffalo Professional Firefighters Union Local 282.

The union tried unsuccessfully to negotiate dynamic staffing out of the 2018 agreement; and at a recent Common Council meeting, Ventresca said the model is a mistake.

“The union would never come forward and say that dynamic staffing has led directly to a death; however we know that fires go much differently when companies are out of position and are closed,” Ventresca said.

Dynamic staffing does not put the public or firefighters at risk because the department is “well within” the response time recommended by the National Fire Protection Association, said Fire Commissioner William Renaldo. That recommendation calls for the first engine company to arrive on the scene in under 4 minutes 90% of the time.

Under dynamic staffing, if five firefighters or more throughout the city call in sick, the commissioner can pull one fire company out of service for a shift, which is 24 hours. The closures are based on a schedule that shows which company will be placed out of service on a particular day so that no one company keeps getting closed, Renaldo said.

The crew of the closed company is dispersed to backfill vacancies in other companies because firefighters are out sick, on vacation or taking personal time, Renaldo said.

“That’s where the savings come in because that’s … less people we have to call in for overtime,” Renaldo said.

Since January 2019, the city has placed companies out of service approximately 145 times, Renaldo said. And even if the threshold is met for dynamic staffing on any particular day, if division chiefs advise that a company should not be put out of service, Renaldo said he has always taken that recommendation.

Ventresca is running a “misinformation campaign,” encouraging “fear mongering” and just “wants to generate more overtime for (his) members,” Renaldo said during a recent Council meeting.

But dynamic staffing affects “public safety, firefighter safety and the loss of homes and property. There is no talking around those three issues,” John Otto, vice president of the fire union, said during the Council meeting.

“First and foremost it affects response times. To us, there’s no way around it,” Ventresca said later. However, the union does not have any data yet on response times before and after dynamic staffing was implemented.

“Nothing specific,” Ventresca said. “But I can tell you that if you have a call and the closest company is closed, the next company is going to take longer to get there.”

“It’s nonsensible to think that if the first-in pumper is closed that the other pumper coming from further away doesn’t affect response times. If you start a fire and let it burn an extra two minutes, isn’t it a bigger fire?” Ventresca added.

He cited a fire last month on Winslow Avenue that claimed the life of an 84-year-old man as an example, although he and Renaldo disagreed on several points.

On the day of the fire, the first water pumper company  that would have been called was Engine 33  at 1720 Fillmore Ave., but it was doing training, according to Renaldo. The second company with a water pumper would have been Engine 21 at Jefferson Avenue and Kinglsey Street, but it was out of service under dynamic staffing. The third pumper that would have been called – Engine 3 at Broadway and Monroe Street – also was out of position in a training class, Ventresca said.

Rescue 1 – housed with Engine 21 on Jefferson  – was the first to arrive on scene, in 2 minutes and 43 seconds, Ventresca said. But it wasn’t able to put out the fire.

“The first responders didn’t have water. There’s a company there, but they don’t have water. Water puts out fires,” Ventresca said.

When it arrived, Rescue 1 members began searching for resident Charles Alexis, who died in the fire. Since Rescue 1 is in the same building as Engine 21, if Engine 21 had been operating that day, it would have arrived in the same time frame as Rescue 1, Ventresca said.

Meanwhile, Engine 33 eventually responded, Ventresca said. But not only did Alexis’ house get “catastrophically burned out,” two other buildings on either side had severe damage, Ventresca said.

“If Engine 21 was open, things would have gone differently,” Ventresca said, “because Engine 21 would have been there in 2 minutes, 43 seconds,” which is when Rescue 1 arrived from the same building.

But Renaldo said that as soon as the call came in, Engine 33 firefighters put themselves back in service, pressed their in-service button and announced on the air that they were responding to the fire.

“Through our radio transmission … we’ve extrapolated that they were there in roughly 3 minutes, 47 seconds,” Renaldo said. “Rescue 1 entered first, and I believe they were there in 1 minute, 43 seconds,” he added, which is quicker than Ventresca had said.

A computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system identifies which company is out of service and will find the next closest company to fill in, Renaldo said. The CAD system can also tell which fire companies could be shifted without jeopardizing some other part of the city.

The department will have a new CAD system by mid- to late March that will have a lot of additional features such as GPS so dispatchers will be able to know the exact location of all the apparatus at any time and their status, so “we’ll be able to respond a lot quicker,” Renaldo said.

Like Ventresca, Renaldo also did not have data on response times before dynamic staffing was implemented and now.

He said the last study was done years ago when the city was closing firehouses, but “diagnostic tests are being done on the new CAD system, and when that is completed … there’s gonna be some redistricting that will allow us to keep our response time or we’ll actually have better response times. Districts may be reshaped, reformed based on the new data to ensure our response times still remain under 4 minutes.”

“No city can budget for every risk. Everyone would love a police station on every corner. That’s not going to happen,” Renaldo said. “We have a fixed budget. We have a fixed amount of resources, and we do the best we can with our resources..”

During the Council meeting, Council Member Christopher P. Scanlon, whose South District is home to many firefighters, asked Renaldo to provide data on how many times dynamic staffing kicked in compared to the number of times division chiefs recommended the city keep a fire company open and information on how the city would be impacted if dynamic staffing was eliminated. Scanlon also requested information from the union on where dynamic staffing is related to injury or property loss.

“You don’t want to think that the closest fire department to your home for one reason or another is not going to show up,” Scanlon said. “If there’s data that shows that’s not the case, that’s one thing; but I think the vast majority of the public … is very concerned about it. And I think it needs to be discussed a little further.”

From www.buffalonews.com