The acrimony between the Brown administration and city firefighters has reignited after short-lived expressions of mutual appreciation three weeks ago surrounding their long-awaited labor contract settlement.
The breakdown began when the city started enforcing a provision of the contract that allows fire companies to be shut down if five or more firefighters anywhere in the department call in sick on a given day.
The dispute got more intense after a Riverside Avenue fire last week that killed a 6-month-old boy, even though fire union leaders say they agree with the administration that response times to that incident were not affected by the closing.
The union admits the city is acting within the bounds of the contract, which its members just approved.
But they are upset at the way it is being implemented and have launched a campaign against the practice.
The Facebook page for Buffalo Professional Firefighters Local 282 is updated daily with information about which company has been shut down.
The union is concerned that firefighters are being transferred to other parts of town unfamiliar to them and that the policy will affect emergency response times, said Vice President Thomas P. Barrett.
Determining whether to close a company, and which company that will be, is at the discretion of the fire commissioner at the beginning of every shift. Barrett said the use of sick time is down, as is overtime, and that the provision need not be enforced.
The city sought this “dynamic staffing” provision in the contract to discourage the use of sick time and to save on overtime costs. Fire Commissioner Garnell W. Whitfield Jr. said moving firefighers to different houses has been a past practice.
“I don’t know if they thought we wouldn’t enforce it, I don’t know what they thought, but to claim safety issues is outrageous, outrageous,” Whitfield said. “If they were concerned about safety, why would they ever have signed it?”
While Barrett agreed that the baby would not have been saved, he said that he disagreed with Whitfield that response times to the fatal Riverside fire were not affected by the closing.
If a firehouse has only one company, and that company is shut down, the entire firehouse is closed for that shift. The city has had to close a firehouse just once since the new rules into place. Whitfield said the city will not be closing firehouses in the future.
Prior to the Common Council’s June 25 vote on the 15-year contract, firefighters approached lawmakers urging them to vote in favor of it, said Majority Leader Demone A. Smith.
“To try to put this in our lap after the contract is passed – you can’t change a ratified contract,” he said.