By PAUL J. SPETRINI
NORTH KINGSTOWN—The battle between the town of North Kingstown and the North Kingstown Firefighters Association, Local 1651, IAFF over a proposed structural change that would require firefighters to work a 24-hour shift every three days—as opposed to the current arrangement of two 10-hour day shifts following by two 14-hour night shifts followed by four days off— has taken a new turn.
After an arbitration board ruled against the town’s proposal to implement the scheduling change last August—saying it lacked the ability to make such a decision on its own—the town has decided to approach the topic in a different way, by drafting an ordinance that makes the scheduling change mandatory.
Citing a need to find savings in the Fiscal Year 2013 budget, and pointing to a similar scheduling change the NK Police Department already underwent last year, North Kingstown Town Manager Michael Embury says the move to 24-hour shifts is a necessary one and insists it’s “nothing against the fire department.”
“We need to save money,” Embury said from his office Tuesday afternoon. “And if you look at the budget, the Fire Department is the largest out of the general fund side. We have to go from about $24.8 million and we have to get down to $22 million and change. We have to cut a large amount of money. We need structural change from fire to help stabilize our costs. It’s business, it’s nothing personal.”
NK Firefighters Association president Captain Ray Furtado says the union will exhaust every option to fight the change.
“Our stance is the same [since the arbitration ruling],” he said. “It’s fundamentally unsafe to have firefighters work 56 hours in a work week. We went through a long and exhaustive and expensive arbitration process which vetted the issue and the town ultimately lost its position. Now, as a result, they’re trying to implement as an ordinance the same unilateral decision and we’re prepared to oppose it at all costs.”
While Embury says the last offer on the table from the town was a 48-hour work week, not the 56-hour one the new schedule would result in, Furtado feels the mere fact that the town would try to implement the change through an ordinance process goes against the idea of negotiating in good faith.
“Their action on this ordinance is a violation of our collective bargaining rights,” Furtado said. “Their attempt to push this ordinance through, in violation of state law mind you, certainly flies in the face of the labor relations act and collective bargaining as a whole.”
In its ruling last August, the arbitration board stopped short of rejecting the idea of 24-hour shifts as a whole but stated that the economic climate in North Kingstown did not warrant such a change at the time.
Needing to make at least $1.3 million in cuts by June, Embury said, warrants making those moves now. “That’s one of the reasons we proposed it,” he said. “It’s all been thought out. There’s the savings, over a million dollars in savings as a result of fewer personnel and overtime.”
Titled “Organization of the Fire Department”, the new ordinance would add a section to Chapter 14 of the town’s overall ordinances, the chapter dealing with personnel.
If passed, the ordinance would mandate that, beginning on January 1, 2012, the Fire Department convert into a three-division organizational structure, with the same pay currently provided by the collective bargaining agreement, and move to a schedule consisting of 24-hour shifts followed by 48 hours off.
The new ordinance also says the Town Manager is “urged and supported in exploring options for privatization of any and all functions of the Fire Department”.
Currently in the second reading-phase, the new ordinance is set for public comment at the town council’s meeting on January 9.
Furtado promises the union will be on hand to voice their concerns and, if passed, says it will fight to have it overturned.
“We’re working with our attorneys as we speak,” he said. “We’re going to exhaust every legal and collectively bargainable resource at our disposal to oppose this at all costs.”