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Select Board and firefighters clash over shifts

Date: 10/13/2009

By Courtney Llewellyn

Reminder Assistant Editor

LONGMEADOW Traditionally, the Longmeadow firefighters (Local 1903 of the International Association of Firefighters, or IAFF) are the ones to determine the hours they work during collective bargaining discussions.

An article that is currently on the warrant for the Special Town Meeting will ask voters "to see if the Town will vote to insert the following new provision in the Town Charter: Section 7-10: Limitation of Hours of Work - No employee of the Town shall be regularly scheduled to work for the Town more than 14 continuous hours in any midnight to midnight 24 hour period."

Although this applies to all town employees, the firefighters and the police were the most vocal groups opposing the proposed change.

The town charter can be changed with a two-thirds vote at the Special Town Meeting, and the Select Board is looking to change the charter because a bylaw could be superseded by collective bargaining.

The article was approved for the warrant while contract negotiations are still underway for the town's firefighters, and they are arguing that hours worked in a shift should be determined by the union, not by the town charter.

A forum took place last Wednesday evening, where members of the Select Board presented reasons why they thought the charter change made sense, and both town residents and supporters of the firefighters from nearby towns and cities gave their opinions on why the change did not.

Select Board Clerk Mark Gold explained that the town's firefighters currently work a mix of two 10-hour shifts and two 14-hours shifts, for a total of 48 hours over an eight-day work week. The switch to 24-hour shifts would mean a firefighter would work 24 hours, have the next 24 off, work another 24 hours, and then not return to the fire house for five days unless there were an emergency.

"The Select Board is concerned that such a shift schedule is unsafe for residents and employees," Gold stated. He presented five different studies that showed work fatigue was the primary cause of work-related errors and accidents - but no studies that related directly to firefighters.

Mike Maheux, wellness coordinator for the fire department, noted that 24-hour shifts would reduce the lack of sleep many firefighters currently deal with and that the longer shifts would ultimately be better for their lives and their safety.

Close to 75 percent of the fire departments in the Commonwealth operate on 24-hour shift schedules.

Many of those who took the podium stated that the issue was about collective bargaining and not about hours worked, including Attorney Kevin Coyle, who represents IAFF Local 1903, which consists of 21 Longmeadow firefighters. "The hours of work belong at the bargaining table," he told the Select Board. "A charter change is the inappropriate vehicle for a collective bargaining issue." He added that if the town moved forward with the proposed change, the litigation between the town and the union would result in "a waste of taxpayer dollars."

"It's like there were two different meetings going on," Gold told Reminder Publications. "Some of the police and the firefighters saw this in a different context than it was being presented. The forum was not a negotiation. It was [a question] about [whether] we want our employees to work long hours. We're keenly aware of our collective bargaining obligations. We've been bargaining in more than good faith."

Richard Hayes, Labor Counsel for the town, noted that the issue was the Select Board wanting to make sure residents felt this change was important enough to take the next step.

Many of the firefighters and police who spoke on the subject talked about the bargaining not about the pros or cons of the 24-hour shifts. Bernhard Porada, of the Longmeadow Police Department, said he was bitterly disappointed in the Select Board because the town was not being honest with its employees and unions.

"This is a first shot at bypassing collective bargaining," he stated.

Resident Jerold Duquette called the proposed change "bad management, bad public policy and horrible politics." Dan McQuade, a firefighter in Chicopee, who has worked both 10-14 and 24 schedules, said the difference in the shifts is "a lot of malarkey."

"We fought a four-year battle over this in Chicopee," McQuade said. "Our union spent $20,000 on it and I'm betting the city spent a lot more."

Jim Moran said he was concerned about safety on both sides of the issue but wondered if there were easy ways to fill gaps if someone were sick or injured to fill a day-long shift.

"There's a much better chance for a replacement to be well-rested because of more time off," Coyle replied.

"There's overwhelming evidence that sleep deprivation affects reason," Select Board member Rob Aseltine stated, "and that's especially important for the folks who provide a critical service to this town."

Resident Brian Goggin asked at the forum if there would be any cost savings to the town if 24-hour shifts were utilized.

Fire Chief Eric Madison said he's looked at the cost saving issue a lot. "Oftentimes there's a reduction in sick time at the beginning and there are some initial savings but over time, sick time goes up. It's probably a wash."

Karl Schmaelzle, president of IAFF Local 1973 in Agawam, who attended the forum, said the shifts work well in Agawam and have been doing so since the switch in January 1994.

"We were the first department west of I-495 to make the switch," he said. Now, Westfield, West Springfield, Chicopee and Northampton do them as well. Schmaelzle said that at first, about half of the department was against the change, but after a one-year trial period, no one had any objections.

The forum was intended to be an information gathering session, and in that regard, Gold said he thought it was a good meeting, but he'd like to hear more input from residents on the topic of hours instead of negotiations.

"There will definitely be discussions going forward," he said. When asked if the sentiment displayed at the forum would cause the Select Board to withdraw the article from the warrant, Gold said he couldn't guarantee that it would stay on or be removed.

The next Select Board meeting is scheduled for Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. in the Police Station Community Meeting Room; the Special Town Meeting will take place Oct. 27.