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Lengthy labor dispute weighs on firefighter morale

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of September 18, 2014)

The two sides in the failed contract negotiations between Indian River County and its Fire Rescue workers disagree strongly on several key issues, but they’re in total agreement on one particular topic: The protracted labor dispute has damaged the morale of the firefighters.

As might be expected, the two sides disagree, however, on whether the situation has created health and safety concerns, either for the firefighters themselves or for the general public they serve. The county says essential services are not suffering – the union says it’s not so sure.

John O’Connor, president of the local chapter of the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF), says he’s never seen his co-workers so disenchanted. “Morale is at an all-time low,” O’Connor said, “which is why we have a record number of firefighters seeking employment elsewhere.”

O’Connor said the county recently lost firefighters and/or paramedics to Indian River Shores, Palm Bay and even Palm Beach County. Dozens more, he added, applied for jobs in St. Lucie County because they haven’t had a cost-of-living raise in six years and they’re concerned about health and safety conditions.

County Administrator Joe Baird didn’t refute O’Connor’s assessment of the firefighters’ spirits, but he said hard feelings often accompany difficult labor negotiations, adding that the union is overstating the exodus of employees. “We have had a lot of guys retire the past couple of years, but we don’t have a lot of people leaving for other jobs.”

To back his claim, Baird referred to an analysis by county staff of Fire Rescue Division turnover rate since Jan. 1, 2012, showing 24 firefighters and/or paramedics have retired and another 16 resigned during the past 33 months. That’s roughly half the annual resignation rate of other county employees, including Teamsters and non-union workers.

“We actually have a lengthy waiting list for firefighters,” Baird said. “It’s a job a lot of people want.”

The county has declared an impasse in contract negotiations, which began in May 2013 for a contract that was supposed to run from Oct. 1, 2013 through Sept. 30, 2014. The dispute now goes to an independent arbitrator who will hear from both sides Oct. 9-10, then make a recommendation. Commissioners are not legally bound to abide by it and, if they so choose, have the authority to impose the contract proposed by Baird.

“We’ve been at this for over a year, and there are still a few issues we haven’t been able to resolve – pay raises, a limit on shift swaps and reductions in vacation and sick time,” Baird said. Florida law prohibits firefighters from going on strike.

O’Connor said the county’s contract proposal will hurt performance because young firefighters, after gaining experience here, will seek other jobs in neighboring communities that offer better pay and working conditions.

“We’d end up with a revolving-door, with experienced guys constantly leaving,” O’Connor said, adding that the county’s contract proposal includes more than 30 takeaways, including no retroactivity for pay raises.  “That would leave us with a lot of less experienced guys,” he added. “Is that what you want when you call 911?”

O’Connor said at least four fire stations are in need of renovation or repair, several trucks and ambulances aren’t properly maintained, and firefighters are being forced to work under more challenging – and even unnecessarily dangerous – conditions.

The union offered in May to use its own funds to have four fire stations inspected for air quality, mold, infestation and structural problems. The county refused, saying such inspections were its responsibility. Three months later, inspections were conducted at Fire Stations No. 1 (1500 Old Dixie Hwy., Vero Beach), No. 7 (1215 82nd Ave., Vero Beach), No. 10 (62 N. Broadway, Fellsmere) and No. 11 (2555 93rd St., Wabasso).

As of Monday, the union had received an inspection report for only Fire Station No. 1 showing problems with moisture, mold, air quality, roof leaks and ventilation.

Baird said the county has spent in excess of $14 million since the 2004 hurricanes to rebuild and renovate fire stations and the county will address health and safety issues found at each station.

O’Connor also said some fire trucks and ambulances have, on occasion, broken down en route to emergencies. “We understand these are tough times, economically, but when someone calls 911, we’ve got to respond – and we need to have the tools to respond. The county has added three ambulances and bought one fire truck, but we’ve got some vehicles that are falling apart.”

Baird said the county was forced to put off the purchase of replacement vehicles the past few years in an effort to balance the budget during the economic downturn.

In February, his staff presented a five-year plan to catch up on replacing the Fire Rescue Division’s rolling stock. The county spent nearly $1.4 million for the new truck and ambulances.

Fire Chief John King recently issued two general orders – one restricting the hours during which firefighters, who work 24-hour shifts, are allowed to sleep while on duty at the fire stations, the other requiring firefighters to incur the cost of replacing equipment lost or damaged as a result of employee negligence.

The union successfully challenged the general order that initially allowed on-duty firefighters to sleep at the fire stations only between 11:15 p.m. and 5:15 a.m., getting the hours extended to 9:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. “We need the ability to respond to all calls rested and ready to work,” said O’Connor.

Baird said the county wants to limit the number of shift swaps to 12 per employee per year. “From a management standpoint, we need to have more control over this, so we can make sure the replacements have the same skills,” Baird said. “This is a big issue for some in the union, but employees already get vacation, sick time and Kelly Days. Do they really need unlimited shift swaps, too?”

Baird said his staff report showed that during the 14-month period from August 2013 to September 2014, only 28 of 230 employees swapped shifts more than 12 times per year – leaving almost 90 percent of employees under the proposed cap.

“We openly acknowledge that firefighters and paramedics are very valuable to this county, but we have a limited amount of funds and we need to have rules in place to manage the division properly,” Baird said.