Fire staffing debate heats up

The Ogdensburg Fire Department. Matt Curatolo/Watertown Daily Times

OGDENSBURG — A number of citizens voiced their displeasure to Ogdensburg City Council with a new policy reducing the number of firefighters on a shift that limits their ability to gain inside access during a structure fire.

On Sunday, City Manager and Fire Chief Stephen P. Jellie cut the number of firefighters on a shift from four to three, citing a lack of cooperation from the firefighter union, Ogdensburg Firefighters Local 1799, in renegotiating “exorbitant perks” and hazard pay currently in their contract.

As explained by Mr. Jellie, the change in staffing will make it so firefighters arriving at a structure fire will have to wait until off-duty personnel respond or mutual aid from a nearby volunteer department responds to give them at least four firefighters before they can enter the residence as dictated by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which requires at least two firefighters outside in order for two to enter. That rule goes out the door if firefighters feel that there is a life at risk and they will enter to “save a life.”

During one of two public comment portions of the meeting, Ogdensburg Firefighters Local 1799 President Jason Bouchard was one of many who called in to voice his displeasure over the new policy and discussed the union’s “perks,” including hazard pay and compensatory time.

“So what do we really make of the move to a three-man minimum? In 2020, our union had an economist look into the city’s finances. His findings then concluded that the city’s financial strength was healthy and improving due to the actions taken by the former city manager and council,” Mr. Bouchard said. “It is our union’s belief that it is fiscally impossible to claim inability to pay given these facts. If the city does believe they cannot afford to honor the contract we ask that they simply prove it. This could be done through the guaranteed binding arbitration process present in our contract to settle disputes such as this one. If it was truly provable, would the city manager have already filed for arbitration to prove it? Why haven’t you?”

Mr. Bouchard said that the city manager reduced the number of EMS calls that firefighters, also trained EMTs, went on by more than 500 in 2021. Couple that with the three-man minimum staffing, public safety is at risk, according to the union president.

“And now by implementing the three-man minimum we are putting our safety and the safety of our citizens, their friends, their families, their pets, their property in even greater jeopardy, and intentionally making us even less effective. Seemingly due to the city administration’s inability to access our contract, citizens of Ogdensburg are calling 911 and being denied the services they have come to expect. Is this really about inability to pay, or lack of desire to pay in an effort to demolish our department? We think the latter,” Mr. Bouchard said.

Calling in to support the Local 1799 was International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) 1st District Vice President James Slevin who said that the union will do what is necessary to protect its members and the citizens of Ogdensburg.

“You have to look out for the citizens of Ogdensburg. Yes, I am advocating on behalf of my members, but when my members are safe that means the City of Ogdensburg and residents of Ogdensburg are safe and that is our hope. We will go above and beyond to protect the citizens of Ogdensburg and we will not allow staff cuts to take place,” Mr. Slevin said. “We have their back and we will provide them with every single resource available of the IAFF.”

A number of residents, including Penny Sharrow, called in to adamantly oppose the new policy.

“Three men on a shift having to deal with and wait for mutual aid to show up to enter a building is ludicrous and totally unsafe,” she said.

Maureen Brashaw said she felt November’s election, when three incumbents were re-elected, was a vote in support of the city’s first responders and the council and city manager should respect that.

“The people voted in November for our first responders to be treated fairly and with respect, for their well-being and the well-being and safety of community to be taken seriously. Again, the people voted and you all need to listen. So for the record, the voters demand you all honor the legal and binding contracts of the fire department and police department,” Mrs. Brashaw said.

Ann Loffler said she was holding anyone who supported Mr. Jellie’s policy personally responsible if any of her five grandchildren are harmed because of a lack of response by the OFD.

“Don’t you care about the people in this town? Anybody that backs this on this council, you should be ashamed of yourself. What if it’s one of your family?” Ms. Loffler asked. “Pray to God that nothing happens to one of my grandchildren ‘cause I will move heaven and earth to make sure everyone who backs this ridiculous, uncalled-for, stupid action is held legally responsible. I may not be able to go after you criminally but I will civilly.”

Valerie Sovie, who had issues with being heard numerous times that night, had Councilor Nichole Kennedy read an email that she had written on the subject. She pointed to the title of a press release from Mr. Jellie that stated: “OGDENSBURG FIRE DEPARTMENT MINIMUM DAILY STAFFING REDUCED TO 3 AFTER IAFF LOCAL 1799 REFUSES TO NEGOTIATE A REDUCTION IN PERKS AND HAZARD PAY.”

“The title clearly reveals the true intent of the reduction in minimum daily staffing, which appears to be motivated less by budgetary concerns and more so by the desire of this administration to take punitive and retaliatory action toward the members of the fire department for their unwavering commitment to maintaining the high level of service and public safety outlined in their contract, as citizens and taxpayers of the City both need and deserve,” Mrs. Sovie wrote. “With numerous changes in staffing and operating procedures ongoing in the department, it is little wonder that the members of the fire department believe that the City is not capable of negotiating in good faith.”

During items for discussion that were in between the two forums of public comment periods, Mr. Jellie justified his actions, stating that the shift to three personnel was discussed during the budget process and that he was surprised that councilors were not aware of the change.

“Everybody on council knew the staffing that we approved in the budget. I didn’t hear any recommendations, there were no motions passed, there were no ideas floated about how to increase staffing at the fire department,” Mr. Jellie said. “I certainly brought it up, the numbers were right in front of you how many people we had on staff, so I’m a little concerned that council appears to be so uninformed on this topic.”

He said that the staffing amounts to what the city can sustain and afford at this time.

“No one wants to see anyone in danger. I’m not comfortable with a three-person minimum staffing; I am not comfortable with it. But I am not comfortable with the city expending resources that we don’t have either. It’s going to lead us to no fire department,” Mr. Jellie said. “I really wish we could drop the rhetoric, we could drop the talk about people dying, nobody caring about houses burning and people’s houses will burn. This is just all talk. It’s not things that are really happening. We had five fires in the City of Ogdensburg last year. Five. Five fires is not how we justify an overall budget close to $4 million. It’s not how we do it.”

Mr. Jellie said that if hazard pay, which amounts to $200,000, could be negotiated out of the firefighter contract, that savings could be used to allow for another firefighter to be staff on overtime to get to four. He also was concerned that even if he was allowed to hire several more firefighters, he may not be able to find anyone to fill the positions.

Mayor Jeffrey M. Skelly said he thought it was unfair that Mr. Jellie was taking the brunt of the anger for the policy.

“I think it’s ridiculous it’s put on Steve Jellie, onto the city manager, when there was decades and decades and what did the city council do, the city government do to grow revenue so we could afford these departments? It’s not his fault there is a limited amount of revenue,” said Mr. Skelly, who also talked about a loss of sales tax due to failed negotiations with St. Lawrence County.

This policy, along with other issues associated with it, could be on the agenda at a city council workshop set for Jan. 31.

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