October 20, 2014

Elyria
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Elyria fire chief changes OT guidelines

ELYRIA — Elyria city and fire officials say a recent change in guidelines for calling in firefighters for overtime could disperse the hours among a greater number of workers, though both parties doubt it will cut down on overtime expenses.Elyria Fire Chief John

Zielinski issued a new policy last week that appears to eliminate the need to maintain stringent officer-to-firefighter ratios on each shift. 

Zielinski, who was on vacation and couldn’t be reached for comment, didn’t explain the intent behind the changes to city officials, and city and fire officials — still trying to hammer out a contract after a year of negotiations — were hesitant to speculate on his motives.

But Elyria firefighters union President Dave Street and Safety Service Director Chris Eichenlaub both agreed that the change should cut down on fatigue and burnout among the department’s higher-ranking firefighters, who find themselves being called in too often for overtime.

The previous guidelines for calling in firefighters — enacted in May 2005 — mandated that the officer-to-firefighter ratio should be four officers on a shift for every 10 firefighters when the department’s manpower level dropped to 14, as is the current level.

The policy spelled out in detail who could be called in to replace a missing officer to maintain the required officer-to-firefighter ratio.

In the new guidelines distributed by Zielinski last week, the entire section on the officer-to-firefighter ratio was eliminated.
Street said the net effect of the change could possibly mean that lower-ranking firefighters who have the proper qualifications and training could cover for officer rather than having a small number of officers constantly recycled to cover for their counterparts.
Street said the change actually reverts to an older, tried-and-true method where the department had a standard rotating manpower list for each of the three shifts — a simple process where firefighters were called until someone agreed to come in and work.

Eichenlaub said Zielinski had expressed reservations about eliminating the ratio because he feared using lower-ranking firefighters to replace promoted officers would reduce the number of experienced officers on duty.

While city heads and the Fire Department continue squabbling over fundamental questions — firefighters say they need 17 firefighters per shift to operate safely, city officials say 14 is sufficient — both agree that Zielinski’s recent changes shouldn’t have much impact on how much the department spends on overtime.

“It’s not a money decision,” Eichenlaub said, adding that it’s “a more equal distribution of overtime hours” among a larger group of firefighters.

The change, Eichenlaub said, could cut down on overtime among overworked officers, thus offering lower-ranking replacements more opportunity for overtime — a more “equitable distribution.” As for savings, there won’t be much as Eichenlaub said replacement workers who fill in for higher-ranking officers are paid a premium to fill the higher-responsibility job.

Contact Shawn Foucher at 329-7197 or sfoucher@chroniclet.com.