Fire staffing debate heats up

The Ogdensburg Fire Department. Matt Curatolo/Watertown Daily Times

OGDENSBURG — Beginning today, minimum staffing at the Ogdensburg Fire Department will be reduced to three firefighters by City Manager and Fire Chief Stephen P. Jellie following failed attempts to renegotiate “perks” and hazard pay with the union representing the city’s firefighters.

The union says the change in staffing jeopardizes public safety.

The fire department had been at a minimum crew of four prior to the change. That allowed two firefighters to enter and fight a structure fire from within, leaving two firefighters outside as directed by Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines. The new minimum staffing will affect how city firefighters can attack structure fires in the future.

“The most significant thing it limits, is we would have to wait until recalled personnel or the first arriving mutual aid arrive before we can enter a burning structure fire unless there is life at risk. If there is life at risk, we can still do what we have to do save a life,” Mr. Jellie said. “The OSHA standard requires, in order to have two people inside, we have to have two people outside. So it does set us back a little bit on making entry into a structure. It doesn’t say we can’t start hosing from a door, hosing from windows.”

Ogdensburg Firefighters Local 1799 President Jason T. Bouchard said that Mr. Jellie’s most recent actions will once again put citizen and firefighter safety at an even greater risk.

“In a move to try and use Ogdensburg residents and business owners as leverage, he is deciding to move our department to a three-man minimum on duty. This move is against any and all industry safety standards,” Mr. Bouchard said in a press release Friday afternoon. “The city manager will accuse our union’s displeasure as ‘fear mongering,’ but this is an indisputable fact.”

Having a staff of three firefighters will impact what they can do before mutual aid or recalled personnel can arrive at the scene, according to Mr. Bouchard.

“OSHA and NFPA (National Fire Protection Association) have plenty of existing literature dictating how our proud public servants will no longer be able to enter a burning structure with a crew of three. Meaning, Ogdensburg firefighters will have to stand idly by, watching your home or business burn, waiting for help to arrive in order to enter the building safely,” Mr. Bouchard said. “There is no way for us to accomplish an interior firefighting attack with three men, none.”

“Local IAFF 1799 very much looks forward to Mr. Jellie’s explanation to his constituents how this violation of federal safety regulations is acceptable,” he added.

The reduction in minimum staffing was done, according to Mr. Jellie, after attempts to meet and “work out a collective plan” were ignored by Local 1799. Mr. Jellie said he would prefer for there to be four or even five firefighters staffed at each shift but there has to be discussion on “exorbitant perks demanded by IAFF Local 1799 and to maintain the level of staffing desired by the union.”

“If unions such as the firefighters’ union are going to continue to drive for the highest and most significant level of benefits and perks in the city, and quite frankly the surrounding area, we’re just not going to be able to afford the numbers of staff they want. We are going to have to have less people to afford those high salaries and benefits,” Mr. Jellie said. “I would really rather see a reduction in some of the perks and benefits and the low contributions towards things like health care and we use that money to hire the staff to be able to keep a minimum staffing of four, and again preferably five.”

Another “perk” request is a $6 an hour hazard pay, which Mr. Jellie calls “job security pay and a total sham on the taxpayers that was approved by the previous City Council.”

Mr. Bouchard said that Mr. Jellie is once again publicly shaming the city’s firefighters for not meeting with him and that the city manager is “threatening us once again.”

“Only this time he is using firefighter and public safety as leverage, realizing help is nowhere near close enough for us to adequately fight fire with four, certainly not with three,” Mr. Bouchard said. “Meanwhile, he and the administration he serves have violated our contract on numerous occasions. How on earth could we come to an agreement with a group like this? Would it even be honored? Would you trust them?”

Mr. Bouchard called this new policy “reckless” and the “latest example of dangerous decision-making and hostage-taking negotiating tactics used by this administration to reduce public safety and decimate the Ogdensburg Fire Department.”

The union president contends that since the end of 2019, the department has lost 12 of its 28 members, or 42.85% of its staff.

“Using the city manager’s numbers, this represents a total reduction of over $1.5 million in savings from our department, per year, forever. One would think that is more than enough,” Mr. Bouchard said.

The city manager and fire chief called on Mr. Bouchard to schedule a meeting to “discuss how to work collectively to insure the City remains financially strong.”

“As Fire Chief, I call on IAFF Local 1799 President Jason Bouchard to think for himself and chart a course for the next 20 years, which should include a plan to maintain minimum fire department career staffing of four personnel and to train a volunteer augmentation force of 16 personnel by the end of 2023,” Mr. Jellie said.

That doesn’t appear to be part of any of the union’s immediate plans. On Nov. 13, 2020, the union tallied a 27-0 vote of “no confidence” in Mr. Jellie as the fire chief.

“Based on the trustless relationship existent between the two parties, and the exorbitant amount of concessions already made by our union, Local 1799 does in fact decline any requests to negotiate with this current administration,” said Mr. Bouchard, who asked that members of the public voice their displeasure with the new policy at the 6 p.m. City Council meeting on Monday.

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(1) comment

Rook03

I’m sure the CM/fire chief will be pitching on those understaffed shifts. When he’s not making subs at Jrecks for Skelly.

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