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Peter Sells Flashpoint blog

The eight per cent solution?

Written by Peter Sells   
Feb. 16, 2012 – In my next FlashPoint column for Fire Fighting In Canada magazine, I will discuss the negotiation hierarchy of interests, rights and power. Without stealing my own thunder, I will advocate the idea of not progressing along that hierarchy unless and until the earlier strategy has failed or is not appropriate. Stay tuned for more on that topic, presented in the context of the resolution of the Corner Brook firefighters’ contract.

Well, no sooner had I submitted that column than the news came out that the City of Corner Brook had signed off on the firefighters’ contract and then immediately issued layoff notices to four firefighters. An overall wage increase of 16 per cent was paired with a staffing decrease of eight per cent. Big bucks and a whammy. This arrangement leaves Corner Brook with nine firefighters and officers per shift, minus vacation, lieu time and other absences. Let’s hope that there is no impact on firefighter and/or public safety as a result of this decision.

In a June 2011 blog, I commented on a similar situation in Toronto:

It has been reported over the last week that Toronto Police may be asked to reduce their uniformed and civilian staff by 10 per cent, specifically 500 uniforms and 300 suits. So now, it seems that Toronto Fire is under similar pressure for a double-digit budget decrease. Reality bites, but it is still reality. You can’t cut an operating budget which is in excess of 90 per cent salary and benefits by 10 per cent or more without reducing staff . . .

This leads to a puzzling juxtaposition of tactics; less than a month ago, Toronto police were awarded salary increases totalling 11.5 per cent over the next four years, making them the highest paid cops in Canada. The Ford giveth and the Ford taketh away? What’s with the sideshow shell game? If fair is fair, then can Toronto firefighters expect a similar contract if they are also asked to decimate their ranks?

The original target numbers for Mayor Rob Ford’s budget axe would have led to a situation eerily similar to what has just transpired in Corner Brook. The fire chief of Toronto, like all other department heads, was asked to come up with savings of 10 per cent. The only way to do that would have been to reduce staff by approximately 300 firefighters. That didn’t happen, but then again, the contract in Toronto has not yet been settled.

Three hundred may sound like a bigger number than four, and in absolute terms, it is. In relative terms, it is much more difficult for a smaller organization to absorb a decrease than for a larger organization to absorb a proportionally similar decrease. The larger organization would experience measurable increases in average response time if apparatuses are taken out of service. Taking a Corner Brook apparatus out of service would be devastating. That is not a likely scenario, but that one missing firefighter per shift will ultimately impose an increased workload on a relatively small pool of talent. You can only go to the well so many times for overtime call-backs before it starts to impact peoples’ lives and well-being.

I don’t envy either fire chief in their job of managing their department through such times. Neither do I admire either city administration for their mixed, underhanded tactics.