If the recent submission of a 60-day out clause in relation to the current joint staffing agreement to the Oakdale Rural Fire Protection District Board is any indication of relations between the rural district and the city firefighters —the honeymoon is over.
Both chiefs, Oakdale City Fire Chief Michael Botto and ORFD Chief Lee Winton seemed blindsided by the formal step taken by the Oakdale Professional Firefighters Local No. 4451 at the ORFD board meeting Thursday, May 19 as hostilities erupted over accusations of inequality between the city and district firefighters.
Under the agreement, the minimum daily staffing level of the city is three members at City Fire Station No. 1 and two members at the City Station No. 2; the minimum daily staffing level at the District is three members, one of which will be assigned to the city.
The savings to the city represented approximately $170,000 to $255,000 (the cost of two to three line positions required to maintain minimal staffing) annually.
When the agreement was struck and put into effect March 1, 2010, the collaborative spirit buoyed both agencies in a sea of good intentions. There was a lot of talk about working together for the greater good of the community and how the joint staffing agreement benefited both agencies — but it seems those feel-good vibes have faded and the issues that couldn’t be avoided, are rising and threatening to tear down everything that’s been built so far.
Engineer Jered Eckle, Vice President of the Local No. 4451, said there was a lack of “parity” between the rural district and the city that has nothing to do with the pay scale or benefit package and the rural firefighters are afraid that the “band-aid fix” will remain the status quo, which will not benefit the rural firefighters.
“Is there a better way to deliver service?” Botto asked of Eckle and Lt Adam French at the meeting. French is the president of the Local No. 4451. “It’s a fiscal issue. We don’t have enough money to do what we want and there’s not enough money to do what we need to do.”
Winton chimed in, saying, “We are making studies — are those studies as fast as we would like them, probably not. Change takes time and we’re pushing as fast as we can to make that happen.”
Eckle and French said there are inconsistencies on shift and recognition of rank between agencies.
“We’ve got a captain riding backward on the engine like a firefighter,” Eckle said as an example.
Captain Rob Hoyer agreed, saying, “Integration can’t be on a voluntary basis. There’s an ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’ component.”
In response to the concerns, the Botto weighed in.
“We have established an Operational Ad-hoc Committee made up of representatives of each firefighters group and administration. We met frequently at the beginning of the partnership as we worked through change. The need to meet has diminished and issues brought up were minimal. Some of the concerns that the District firefighters have and requested are that all 27 members be given the opportunity to bid for any station. We are not there at this time and this is not currently an option. We have been improving our operations daily with enhanced joint training and the implementation of a single training program with all three agencies, which includes Stanislaus Consolidated FPD. We have cross-trained all our personnel on all fire engines and all personnel can operate each other’s as needed. We have established the goal at the very beginning that each agency will bring up the others to the highest level of training and skills that each other possess. When daily staffing exceeds our minimum by two members then we open up the browned-out District station by often using one District and one City firefighter. This is the benefit of our partnership. It has been obvious that some ‘issues’ that have been brought forward have not been solved to this point. We (Botto/Winton) have encouraged our labor groups to meet and work on these issues collectively. I believe there needs to be additional compromises by both groups to resolve these challenges. Both labor groups have come a long way in meeting this objective but more work needs to be done (by both).”
When the joint staffing agreement was struck, ORFD bore the brunt of the structural and internal changes, which is another bone of contention. They lost their “home” station and browned out Knights Ferry and Valley Home on a rotating basis. Eckle said, “We feel we’ve been asked to swallow more than the city when it comes to this deal and as of June 30 we no longer want to do this.”
Chiefs Botto and Winton said of the situation, “We believe the primary issue is that firefighters want to be engaged in emergency responses and exercising their skills and making a difference daily. The District personnel have lost their base, their home station (District Headquarters – East “F” Street) which is unstaffed and used as administrative headquarters and for volunteer and operational support. The Joint Staffed Engine Company responds to all calls traditionally served by the District’s headquarters station. The District firefighters staff Knights Ferry/Valley Home stations on a rotating brownout basis. The call volume and response activity is minimal.”
Winton said, “The basic principle by which we operate is the response of the closest resource, regardless of agency, to the emergency incident. Where the incident occurs with regards to a city/district call, is not the most important critical issue. We are here to serve our citizens, our customers, first in the most efficient manner. If a city engine handles a district call for service because they are closer, then that is the right thing to do.”
Currently, the firefighters do not have the option of bidding for stations, which is another area of concern for the local group.
“We want to sit down and renegotiate our terms,” French said. “We want long term and short term goals identified.”
According to French, they did not want things to come to such a head but felt they were out of options. “We’ve tried to bring up things but we’ve been denied. We’ve tried to be heard. Our goal is not to discontinue the joint engine staffing. But on the same token, it has to be 50/50. We want to know if there’s a long-term plan. We don’t want to stay status quo. We don’t want to have the same kind of cooperative agreement. We’re not going to continue with what we’re doing. The bottom line is renegotiation.”
If a compromise is not reached and the letter goes into effect, terminating the agreement, services will be dramatically reduced, effectively hamstringing both agencies in their daily operations.