Staffing Success in the Fire Sector: Decrease in Minimum Staffing Clause Awarded
Date: March 2, 2020
Staffing in the fire sector is an important emerging topic. Whether it is the minimum staffing provision in a Collective Agreement or the minimum number of firefighters per pumper, both associations and municipalities have been raising these issues at bargaining and interest arbitration. A recent significant case in the fire sector provides some much needed clarity for municipalities. For the first time that we are aware of, an Arbitration Board has decreased a minimum staffing clause.
Staffing in the City of Owen Sound
In Corporation of the City of Owen Sound and Owen Sound Professional Fire Fighters Association (International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 531), 2020 CarswellOnt 1124 (rendered January 27, 2020), a majority of a Board of Arbitration (Board) chaired by Arbitrator Slotnick granted the City’s proposal to decrease the minimum number in the staffing provision.
The City of Owen Sound employs 26 full-time suppression firefighters over four platoons out of one station. Five full-time firefighters are on standby at all times and ready to respond within a reasonable amount of time. The City does not have volunteers but does have a mutual aid agreement which operates in a similar fashion to an automatic aid agreement, with the surrounding municipality of Inter-Township. The Collective Agreement had a minimum staffing provision that required five firefighters on duty at all times.
Due to long term absences, the City’s overtime to meet the requirements of the staffing provision was up to $185,000 per year in callbacks. While this number fluctuated year to year, it was based on the number of firefighters off at any given time, which was unpredictable and subject to change. Therefore, the City proposed decreasing the minimum staffing provision to four on duty at one time. The total number of full-time suppression firefighters (26) would remain unchanged. In contrast, the Association proposed to increase the total number of firefighters from 26 to 28.
The only issue before the Board was whether the decrease in staffing would have an impact on firefighter safety. Under the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, 1997, municipalities determine the level of service required for their community. Therefore, the issue of public safety was not before the Board.
While the issue was not before the Board, the proposed staffing change was presented to City Council on three separate occasions and passed unanimously each time. Both parties also had experts testify with regard to the impact on firefighter safety.
The City, represented by John Saunders and Jessica Toldo of Hicks Morley, made the following arguments during the interest arbitration process:
- The City has the ability to provide additional resources on the scene if needed from its standby firefighters and mutual aid agreement.
- Incident Commanders and firefighters in Owen Sound are well-trained and are expected to follow the relevant Standard Operating Guidelines (SOGs), which explicitly state what four, or even fewer, firefighters are able to do in different situations.
- The City had the second highest per capita cost for fire services in its 23 municipality comparable group.
- The City provided evidence of 24 comparable municipalities with four or fewer firefighters on duty at one time.
In response, the Association raised the following arguments:
- The Board should require exceptional circumstances to change freely negotiated language and this should only be done when other solutions have failed.
- The job of a firefighter is inherently dangerous.
- It emphasized Brockville as the “only true comparator” (with a minimum of five firefighters) and Stratford (with a minimum of six firefighters).
- More firefighters on scene faster was better for building occupants and firefighters, so fewer firefighters must therefore have a negative impact on safety.
The Board accepted the City’s position that the minimum staffing provision in the Collective Agreement should be decreased.
In arriving at the decision, the Board emphasized that “a party seeking to change longstanding and freely bargained language in a collective agreement bears a heavy burden in interest arbitration.” The Board observed that the City had to use overtime for between 12 to 29 percent of the time to maintain the minimum staffing numbers. Impact of the possible delay in the arrival of the fifth firefighter was also examined.
Based on the comparator data, the Board was influenced by the fact that the City was the only municipality with five firefighters on duty and one station out of the comparables. City Council had also unanimously passed the new staffing model on three occasions.
Guidelines, such as NFPA 1710, provide guidance but there is no legislation in Ontario mandating any minimum number of firefighters at the scene. The Board accepted that the Incident Commander must perform their duties with firefighter safety in mind and in accordance with the SOGs. It was concluded that the change was a “negligible additional risk in an occupation that is inherently dangerous.”
Staffing issues are becoming more prevalent in the fire sector, and municipalities can look to this award for guidance. As a note, municipalities should be aware that there are ongoing cases dealing with the issue of minimum staffing, as these issues continue to be raised by both parties. Accordingly, further clarity pertaining to staffing issues may be forthcoming.
For more information about this decision and its implications, please contact either John W. Saunders at 416-864-7247 or firstname.lastname@example.org or Jessica M. Toldo at 416-864-7529 or email@example.com.
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