- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The D.C. fire chief is girding for a public battle with the firefighters union over a plan to switch from the 24-hour shifts firefighters have been working for more than two decades to 12-hour shifts - a plan the chief expects will reduce by about 26 percent the number of firefighters in the District.

Fire officials say the change is a way to save money and keep an alert force that lives within, or much closer, to the District. But the union says the new model will devastate the workforce and is an attempt to drive out firefighters who do not live in the city.

Fire and Emergency Medical Services Chief Kenneth Ellerbe says the plan, if approved through collective bargaining, should save the department over a multiyear implementation period up to $36 million through attrition of about 475 sworn firefighters from a total of about 1,800 firefighters in the city. The savings would also include the reduction in equipment costs for those firefighters and the elimination of overtime payments that have drastically overrun budgeted amounts in the past.

Currently, firefighters work under what is referred to as a “24-72” model, meaning they are on the job for one full day - or the equivalent of three consecutive eight-hour shifts - then they are off for three days. Under the new schedule, called a “3-3-3,” firefighters are expected to work three 12-hour shifts during the day, three 12-hour shifts at night and then get three days off.

Chief Ellerbe, who said the proposal will also provide increased time for training, said he anticipates an intense lobbying effort by the D.C. firefighters union to thwart the proposal.

“It’s going to become public; it’s going to become contentious,” Chief Ellerbe told Mayor Vincent C. Gray and the D.C. Council at their monthly breakfast meeting on Wednesday.

Ed Smith, president of the D.C. firefighters’ union, says the plan amounts to “a major disruption in many ways.”

Mr. Smith said doubling the number of work shifts will lead to less efficiency, as firefighters come and go and try to coordinate with ambulance crews.

It wasn’t immediately clear from Chief Ellerbe’s presentation how the attrition figures would affect the District’s historically troubled ambulance service, which relies in many cases on paramedics who are also cross-trained as firefighters.

Chief Ellerbe said that paramedics currently work 12-hour shifts.

“EMS will suffer,” Mr. Smith said. “Paramedics are already leaving at just the threat of shift change and will continue to leave.”

The fire chief said only 25 percent of firefighters live in the District. More than 40 percent live 30 to 100 miles outside the city - and some as far as South Carolina or New Jersey - because the current system allows them to report for a total of eight days per month.

Under the current system, only 25 percent of the workforce has to show up on any given day, Chief Ellerbe said.

The new model would require firefighters, who Mr. Smith says have not seen a pay raise since 2006, to work longer hours - an average 48-hour week - with no pay increase.

“We’re just getting trampled on,” Mr. Smith said.

Mr. Smith said officials should offer incentives if the department wants more firefighters to live in the District.

“There’s no affordable housing,” he said.”This whole deal is going to destroy people’s lives and their families’ lives.”

Mr. Gray and public safety officials say the city will be safer in the case of a catastrophe if more of its firefighters live close to the city.

Chief Ellerbe agreed.

“We will not reduce services one bit,” he said. “As long as someone’s on duty, safety is not an issue.”

But Mr. Smith disputed that, saying that the reduction in workforce is more of a danger than geographic considerations in the event of a major catastrophe. There is a moment of “disorganized chaos” when local, off-duty members respond in the moments after an event, which means a delay is “not necessarily a bad thing” while on-duty forces coordinate the immediate response.

Mr. Smith also argued the plan could cost the city money before its saves any: It would have to pay for increased work hours before attrition makes up for it.

“We’re definitely disappointed in the mayor,” he said.

Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, said he met recently with local officials, noting that the presentation by Chief Ellerbe was “dramatically different from theirs.”

“This is an enormous issue for them,” Mr. Evans said.

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown applauded the expected savings, but said public safety will guide public opinion on the issue.

“People want to be protected,” he said.

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