Sault Ste. Marie’s fire chief said the local firefighter union asked for 24 hour shifts and they will be expected to work them — without sleep.
The Sault Ste. Marie Professional Fire Fighters Association (SSMPFFA) was recently awarded the ability to work 24 hour shifts by an interest arbitration — the final result of the union’s 2014 contract negotiations with the city — presented during tonight’s city council meeting.
“This is what they requested. They assured us the work could be done in a 24 hour period, that they could be sharp for the 24 hour period,” said fire chief Mike Figliola.
Asked by Ward 5 councillor Frank Fata if the expectation was for firefighters to be awake during an entire 24 hour shift, Figliola responded, “yes I would.”
Reached by phone tonight, SSMPFFA president Marty Kenopic said he is not sure why firefighters would be prevented from sleeping during their shift — because that is already the norm during the current 15-hour shifts and the reason fire halls have beds.
“It’s always a concern that we get proper rehab, especially when we’re fighting fires. We have to circulate the crews through to do the rehab. I would think that concern would be paramount with the fire management,” said Kenopic.
Indeed, management’s position during the negotiation process stated 24 hour-long shifts were ‘dangerous’ due to the potential for sleep deprivation.
Figliola said safety was the number one concern, and he would remove firefighters from service and conduct callbacks for those firefighters showing signs of sleep deprivation.
During the city council meeting, Fata further questioned Figliola regarding the reason for beds in the fire halls since firefighters will not be allowed to sleep.
“We are going to be looking at that as well,” replied Figliola.
The SSMPFFA suggests a move to 24 hour shifts brings the Sault Ste. Marie in line with most municipalities in Ontario.
The new 24 hour shifts will be introduced as a 36 month trial period and city staff have said the new shifts will create challenges for the on-going training firefighters are required to complete because it is often presented over the course of a few days.
City staff also suggest the new longer shifts will result in more sick time usage, as well as additional spending on overtime due to callbacks.
Kenopic downplays those suggestions, “we’re not changing anything working conditions-wise with a 24-hour shift. If anything we will be more efficient as firefighters,”
Also as result of the arbitration, the city’s firefighters were also awarded a wage increase of 2.6% over their 2013 level, in line with the police wage increase of the time.
Although the arbitration covers the 2014 contract negotiations between SSMPFFA and the city, mediation and hearings occurred recently — during the current economic reality the city is facing.
Legal counsel for management presented an argument suggesting the city is not in a position to offer wage increases due to the current economic climate in the city.
While the total cost of the award is still being calculated by the city, Mayor Christian Provenzano wondered aloud why the city’s financial troubles were apparently not recognized by the province-appointed arbitrator.
“If the city of Sault Ste. Marie couldn’t make an ability-to-pay argument right now, who can make an ability to pay argument and when can they make it?” he asked.
City management remains in negotiations with the SSMPFFA for contracts covering 2015, 2016 and beyond.