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A Hummel Report Investigation

Day and Night

Firefighters in North Kingstown are now fighting a new 24-hour work schedule ordered by the town that lengthens not only their work day, but significantly increases the number of hours they have to put in every week. Is it compromising public safety as the union claims, or could it be the town's way to a more efficient department that saves taxpayers money? This week Jim Hummel goes inside the numbers.

For additional excerpts of Jim's  interview with Mike Embury,  click HERE.

SCRIPT

Firefighters across the country are used to working long and varied schedules. But in North Kingstown a new 24-hour shift has evolved into a bitter battle between the firefighters and the town, which implemented the longer shift - over the union's objections - in an effort to save money.

Embury: ``The only way we're going to save money is through personnel costs. The days of doing more with less are long gone. You're doing less with less.''

Town Manager Mike Embury readily admits that the longer shift - which also increases the average work week to 56 hours - is a test case for Rhode Island. But that it has been successful in other parts of the country. 

Embury estimates  the new firefighter scheduling will save taxpayers more than a million dollars a year on an $8 million annual budget.

Embury: ``If we're saving money we don't have to make the drastic cuts you're seeing around the country. If you look at places in Michigan, California, Missouri,  public safety and pension issues are the major issues, personnel issues are where the cost cutting is coming.''

Furtado: ``It's so unsafe to do what we're doing now.'' 

Ray Furtado, president of the North Kingstown Fire Fighters Association, disputes the savings and says the town implemented the new schedule even though it couldn't get it through arbitration - then lost in Superior Court.

Despite that, the town maintains as part of its management rights it can adopt the longer shifts and work week.

The union says that needs to be negotiated and took the town to court.

Furtado: ``We were in the process of trying to negotiate a contract. We came to  the table with concessions and a number of different packages try to save the taxpayers money, keep us safe and overall benefit the community. A lot of our offers just fell on deaf ears and they were insistent on implementing this 56-hour work week structure.''

Here's how it works:
Firefighters work a 24-hour shift, then have 48  hours off.

Which means the first two weeks, they work 48 hours a week.

But the third week of the month it increases to 72 hours in one week.

For an average of 56 hours per week over the course the month.

North Kingstown is the only department in Rhode Island to have a 56-hour standard work week schedule on top of the 24-hour shift.

The shift has allowed the town to reduce the number of platoons from 4 to 3, meaning overall it needs fewer fight fighters to meet minimum manning requirements.

The town initially wanted to implement the new system with no pay increase.

Embury: ``It doesn't make a lot of sense to move from a 42-hour to a 56-hour  work week and keep people's hourly rate the same because you're costing yourself a lot of money.''

Brennan: ``This was going against all the systems that were in place, like collective bargaining and arbitration, and it was wrong.''

Town Councilman Chuck Brennan, a retired North Kingstown Police captain, opposed the new shift - but was on the losing end of a 3-2 vote by the council to approve it - with the provision that firefighters would get a 10 percent pay increase to cover the 33 percent increase in hours.

The system might not be so controversial if the fire department hadn't decreased in manpower by nearly 30 percent over the past five years, from a high of 80 firefighters in 2007 to 56 currently. Of  those, 4 are not available to work because of injuries, which means if there is sickness or vacation and someone doesn't volunteer  for overtime, others are mandated to stay and work an extra 24-hour shift - or longer.

Furtado: ``Everybody's being forced to essentially play the Russian Roulette game and wonder if I go into work Thursday morning  when am I coming home? It might not be until Saturday night, it might be Monday morning. I mean you never know.''

The two sides disagree on whether overtime costs will eat up projected savings and the town won't know for sure until the end of the budget year.
Furtado: ``Last week when we spoke I just pulled up the daily run sheet for that day. We had one firefighter who was on 100 hours of straight duty - his last shift at the tail end of that 100-hour shift, he was the 911 operator. Of 17 people on duty, nine of them had been there for more than 24 hours, five of those nine had been ordered to stay because there wasn't anybody else to replace them.''

Furtado added that overtime is driven by staffing and not shifts.

Furtado: ``It's the size of your work force that determines what you spend on overtime. A work schedule doesn't matter,  because you need X amount of people on X amount of trucks 24 hours a day, seven days a week.''

Brennan: ``Really, what it does, first of all physically it wears you down; people weren't meant to work that many hours. And the other thing is mentally it's time  away from your family, missing things that are going on with your family, maybe  ruining plans that you had. 

You know you work  your regular  shift, and you say okay, you can go to that cookout, I'm picking my son up and then all of  a sudden I'm not coming  home.''

Miranda: ``It bothers me  a lot.''

And that's the complaint 14-year-old Miranda Brooks has. Her father has been a North Kingstown firefighter for more than 20 years. 

Because her parents are divorced, Miranda says the new schedule has made  it harder for her to spend  time with him.

Miranda: ``We just kind of lost our closeness. I can only imagine what the other kids are feeling - 'cause they're used to seeing their dad every single day.''

Embury: ``Now  there's been a lot of brouhaha that, well, this is not safe. Well, you get to sleep - you have the ability to sleep on a 24-hour shift.''

 Embury says in 2011 the department responded to just under 4,800 calls. If you do the math, he says, it works out to an average of just over 3 calls per station per day.

Embury: ``When you go though the call data over the years I think it lends itself  to people being able to sleep and getting rested whether you're on a 24-hour or on a 14-hour or a 10.''

Hummel: ``But there's no guarantee of that. You could have a busy night.''

Embury: ``You might have a busy night. There are some days where you might have 20 (calls). There are days when there's four, for the town in the 24-hour period. It is a change for family life - a couple of people who have talked about that and yes, I understand. But some of those very same people didn't have a problem working a regular (10-hour shift),  a 14 (hour shift) on overtime, stay there for the second regular 10, and then pick up another 14 on overtime before they went home.''

The town has four stations, including a new one in rural Slocum that is staffed by two firefighters. So is Station #2 in Saunderstown.

Each of the stations has beds to sleep in and the firefighters have provided many of the amenities.

Hummel: ``He says there is ample opportunity for your membership to get some  sleep.  And that it's not a safety danger even when somebody's mandated to go the extra - the 48-hour. Now you could have a busy time here and there.  But he said overall there is adequate sleep for your guys and gals. How do you react to  that?''

Furtado: ``Truthfully it's...the nature of this business is you don't get a guaranteed rest period. So many other industries have regulations on how many consecutive hours you work.  If you're a medical resident, if you're a truck driver, if you're a nurse. There are different  professions, so many of them have regulations that say you can't work any further than this because it's unhealthy, it's unsafe, whatever it is. For the fire service that doesn't exist; the few places that work 24 hours shifts in this state have provisions in place so somebody doesn't work over an excess amount of time.  There's none of that in North Kingstown.''

In fact, there is no maximum number of hours a firefighter can work.

Then there is the issue of many firefighters holding second jobs.

Embury: ``Nobody's begrudging a firefighter a second job, making a lot of money, doing what they can for their family. Their primary job is as a firefighter, though.''

Hummel: ``Is that the gorilla in the room that nobody's talking about - the second job?''

Embury:  ``That is the big gorilla in the room. I give them credit for saying it . He didn't say it to me, it was to a third party who's very reliable. `Look, I make more money at my second job. I'm here because of the pension and the benefits.'''

Hummel:  ``And this is impacting  my hours to get that job done?''

Embury: ``Yeah. Maybe, maybe not.''

Hummel: ``Has this become personal?''

Furtado: ``It's not a personal issue for me, so to speak, what I take personally is just we're...they're public safety professionals and (what) we're telling them is you have an unsafe system right now.''

Hummel: ``Mr. Embury says this is a business decision.''

Furtado: ``If this is a business decision, I don't know where the savings are. How do you operate a business and place your employees at risk daily that they don't need to be placed at.

If this is a business decision how do you not give your employees the resources or the staffing, the manpower, to make sure that businesses is operated effectively. He may have said it's a business decision. I don't know if he said it's a good one; from where we sit it certainly is not.''

Hummel: ``What about the argument we need to streamline and we need to do a little bit better job? What other ways are there to do it?''

Brennan: ``I think you're right, there are issues facing North Kingstown, like all other communities, but the firefighters I know have come to the table with a lot of concessions and I don't think the town is taking a good, serious, honest look at  their concessions because I think the town, the people who are in favor of this, they would rather get this system in place. I think they want to be  the first ones  to say we have a 3-platoon, 24-hour system and we won.''


So for now the new shifts remain, but the two sides will be back in court later this month.  And both sides insist they're open to negotiations - but they haven't sat down together since February.

In North Kingstown, Jim Hummel, for  The Hummel Report.

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