Winnipeg's fire department faces a spike in overtime costs this coming year, according to the city's acting fire chief, whose proposed solution — to reduce staff at two stations — is being criticized by the firefighters' union.
Acting Chief Bill Clark is proposing to cut back overtime costs at the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service by having some secondary fire units redeployed or left idle except for peak demand.
The United Fire Fighters of Winnipeg publicly released an inter-office memo sent Tuesday by Clark, who said the service faces a massive impact to its budget because it's forced to backfill positions with overtime.
The department is projected to spend $5.6 million on overtime for firefighters this year, an 86 per cent increase over last year, according to officials.
"Our department has been experiencing a massive impact to our budget due to the expense to backfill positions with overtime," Clark's memo states in part.
"This is not sustainable and the department has been working to find solutions to offset these costs, without making an impact on public or member safety."
Clark told CBC News he has to find savings, as the fire department is facing millions of dollars more in overtime to backfill positions because of firefighters on sick leave or long-term disability claims.
Clark said the service would reduce a single crew at two fire stations that receive the lowest number of calls for service: one in St. Boniface and another in south Fort Garry.
That means second units at those stations would not be staffed unless there are people working on regular time who are available, he said.
Puts people at risk, says union
United Fire Fighters president Alex Forrest blasted Clark's proposal, arguing that it would put citizens' safety at risk.
"It will affect the citizens, and we will be there to ensure that if one incident occurs, Bill Clark is going to have to live with this incident," he said in an interview.
Forrest said the fire paramedic service has not hired enough staff to keep up with retirements and disability absences.
The department is short about 50 firefighters and that has pushed up the overtime bill, he added.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that if you don't have firefighters, you got to call in overtime to be able to staff the fire trucks," he said in an interview.
In a letter to Mayor Sam Katz and council, Forrest wrote that Clark's memo "outlines a policy whereby fire trucks would be struck off duty and unavailable to respond to emergency incidents. Fire truck compliments would also be minimized from four persons per fire truck to just two.
"Not only does this go against industry standards for safety response protocols but it is also a direct violation of the collective agreement," Forrest wrote. "This action directly puts both firefighters and the civilians of Winnipeg at risk."
Forrest added that the fire department's overtime issue "cannot be addressed by putting fire fighters and the citizens of Winnipeg at risk in this manner."
But Clark said the public will not be put at risk and response times will not go up as a result of his proposed staffing changes.
"There is no plan whatsoever to reduce any safety. We still will be maintaining a fire rescue [and] a medical response at every single station in the city at all times," Clark said.