October 23, 2014

Elyria
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Long-awaited audit of Elyria Fire Department is here

ELYRIA — The 331-page report detailing the management and operations of the Elyria Fire Department is a comprehensive document that touches on everything from minimum manning to the department’s benefit-rich contract that gives firefighters the luxury of a lot of days off.

Nearly all of the recommendations on staffing and fire station operation included in the report by the McGrath Consulting Group of Illinois contradict what the city is currently doing, as budget cuts have resulted in a department that sometimes operates with as few as 10 firefighters on duty and only two fire stations open.

Some of its more provocative recommendations are that the city should hire another assistant safety service director to work with the new fire chief, that the city should sell the new $1.1 million ladder truck it just bought and that the city one day should build two new fire stations  — one in Ward 3 and one in Ward 6 — and abandon its two stations downtown.

The report also points out some issues unique to Elyria — particularly the Fire Department’s work schedule. For example, most fire departments employ four people to make certain three can staff a piece of equipment to cover for days off and so forth.

Past stories
July 22, 2009: Elyria fire audit calls for staffing changes
July 19, 2009: Report: Elyria fire chief not ready to lead
July 18, 2009: Fire department’s average work hours revised upwards
July 17, 2009: Fire Department disputes report: We come to work
July 16, 2009: Long-awaited audit of Elyria Fire Department is here

That’s not the case here.

“Incredibly, in Elyria, this number is six for three; for every one firefighter there needs to be one additional firefighter to cover all the workdays off within a year,” according to the report. “The consultants have never encountered a situation of so many allowable days off in any previous study, and the issue of sick leave has not yet been discussed. During the interview, the consultants were told, ‘Some of us take the entire summer off.’ The consultants initially dismissed the comment, but — in fact — it is apparently very accurate.”

The report — the longest ever by McGrath for a single fire department, which has been doing such examinations nationally since 2000 — was not an easy one to write, said Tim McGrath, president and project manager of the company.

The revolving door in the fire chief’s office, firefighter layoffs and the fiscal concerns of the city proved to be challenging. In addition, data collection was difficult because fire personnel never were trained to enter and compile it properly.

Still, McGrath said he stands behind every word in the audit.

“We examined every aspect of the department,” he said. “In the end, we hope all the parties involved read what we have to say and choose what’s best for the citizens. We encountered a good group of people who now have the opportunity to make the department better.”

Recommendations

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has waited on the report that many recommendations are included.

The audit was called for by City Council after it found itself in the middle of the administration and the Fire Department.
In a series of public meetings that date back more than a year, both sides have repeatedly argued for what they felt was best in regards to staffing, how many fire stations should be open at any give time and what the minimum manning level should be in a city of Elyria’s size.

The audit report clearly details recommendations on those matters, as well as many more. Some recommendations are considered a high priority, while others are considered long-term goals that are expected to take years to accomplish.
A key recommendation that won’t please Fire Department personnel is that the city shouldn’t adopt the national safety standard known as NFPA 1710.

Designed to serve as a guideline for departments, NFPA 1710 is a national gauge for determining adequate staffing and response times, among other things. Specifically, NFPA 1710 deals with all departments in the country, regardless of size, that are career or full-time departments.

The local fire union has pushed for the adoption of NFPA 1710, which would require four people on every piece of fire apparatus used and 14 fire personnel arriving at a fire within eight minutes.

Mayor Bill Grace always has countered that NFPA 1710 is a standard only and that the city has no obligation to follow it.
The first of many changes proposed for the department is that dispatch duties should move to the Police Department’s dispatch center. It also suggests that minimum daily staffing should be at 13, which would include 12 firefighters and one shift commander.

The administration removed minimum staffing level, which had been at 14, earlier this year, when the dismal state of the city’s finances was determined.

The McGrath report also attempts to settle a debate about how many fire stations the city needs and where they should be, although it calls for closing the Broad and Cedar street stations in the future and building two new ones.

The city, the report states, will need four fire stations in the future but can operate with three for now.

The recommendation is to temporarily consolidate the Broad and Cedar street stations — the Broad Street station always is the first to close, and it is closed nearly all of the time since the cutbacks — while land is purchased for a new station No. 1 to be built near the intersection of Prospect Street and University Avenue.

The report leaves alone station No. 3 on Lorain Boulevard and station No. 4 on Abbe Road, but suggests a fourth station should be built in the southwest area of the city. The report urges the city to buy the land as soon as possible, although it says the station doesn’t have to be built immediately.

The report also tackles the newly purchased ladder truck — the same truck that firefighters caught flak for after two firefighters were paid overtime so it could appear in the Memorial Day parade. The truck isn’t in service on a regular basis because there are too few firefighters for it to be used.

The McGrath report suggests the truck should be replaced with a vehicle that includes a pump, water tank, fire hose, aerial device and ground ladders.

“Although the city will lose money between the purchase price and selling price, it will be cheaper than hiring additional personnel to staff an engine to run in conjunction with the ladder truck on a daily basis,” the report said.

The report also addresses compensation for Fire Department personnel.

It says that the current contract has some very “concerning” and “lucrative” benefits, but it also suggests that there is ample room within the contract to secure concessions to maintain staffing levels while providing personnel with reasonable benefits.

As far as staffing goes, the report notes that the average full-time firefighter through assistant fire chief works an average of 58 days in a calendar year — less than one-half of the days they are scheduled. That calculation has been called into question by firefighters — resulting in a temporary delay of the report, which was to be made public Wednesday.

But Dean Marks, fire union president, said Wednesday that that number is “completely misleading.”

“If a senior guy took every available day off in a year, he would still work 88 days,” Marks said. “Anything more would be sick time.”

One way to address staffing and overtime issues, the report said, is to alter the way the firefighters use what are known as Kelly days, which are days off given during a pay period to avoid overtime that otherwise would be incurred because of the 24-hour shifts.

In most departments, firefighters are scheduled those days off, and they must be used as scheduled. But Elyria allows firefighters to bank those days and use them as they desire, thereby not eliminating the overtime as was the intention and allowing firefighters to accumulate extra days off in addition to vacation and sick time, according to the report.

Using the report

Fire Chief Rich Benton has said he will use the consultant’s findings more as a strategic guide.

Benton, who said Tuesday he was in possession of the audit and was in the process of reading it, could not be reached for comment Wednesday because, according to Marks, he was trying to collect the necessary data to refute the work day dispute in the report.

Meanwhile, Mayor Bill Grace said he has not read the report in its entirety and said that many copies of the report were sent back to McGrath after the concern arose about the work day data.

“It was the fire staff in their review of the report that found a couple of things they felt may have been inaccurately interpreted,” he said. “McGrath is coming (today) to determine if further review is necessary.”

The Chronicle-Telegram obtained a copy of the report through a public records request after Grace initially said he didn’t want to release the document because of the discrepancies.

Marks said he received a copy of the report Tuesday evening and only got about 100 pages in before he found the mistakes, he said.

“I didn’t even get a chance to finish it,” he said. “I didn’t get a rough draft, and it took me about an hour to see that there was something wrong with it. And, now I don’t even have it to see if there are more mistakes.”

Dean said he immediately called Benton, who called Grace. In turn, the mayor called the McGrath Group.

Victoria McGrath, who also worked on the audit, said she was informed Wednesday the Fire Department is questioning the recommendations of how many days its firefighters work.

“Yes, there may be a problem with the number of days worked data, but it will probably only need to be cleaned up,” she said. “I don’t believe it will change the overall report or any of the recommendations.”

The report could still undergo some revision, Tim McGrath said. However, he said he would not know for sure until the new data the Fire Department found Wednesday to contradict the information in the report are reviewed.

“The city had the report for considerable time to do some review, but apparently the Fire Department has some new, more compelling data it wants to bring forth,” he said. “I’m always a bit cautious when new data appears. A lot of questions will need to be answered before anything is changed in the report.”

McGrath said he is not suggesting the Fire Department is attempting to skew the results. But he said he stands by his study and will have someone in town today.

Apparently, a draft of the report was in an official’s hands for more than a month, although it wasn’t made public.
“I have never faced a client that has had a rough draft for 5½ weeks for review and waits until a final draft is completed to say something is wrong,” he said.

One possible explanation about why additional data surfaced this week can be found within the massive document. There, the consultants detail how difficult it was to collect what they felt were accurate and thorough records and data of Fire Department operations.

“The more the consultants questioned the data,” the report said, “the more conflicting data became. After one month of attempting to get more accurate data on both the part of the department and consultants, the decision was made to move forward with the data provided; however the consultants will make no assurances of its validity or accuracy.”

The report acknowledged that such inaccurate data could lead some to believe that the data was being manipulated to emphasize a particular need or desire. However, what is more likely to blame is the department’s lack of training among its members in the Fire Department’s data collection software.

“A number of individuals responsible for entering data into the computer software program stated they had never had formal training on the software,” the report said.

Grace likewise acknowledged that a problem exists with the department’s data entry and collection.

Not surprisingly, McGrath recommended that the Fire Department immediately arrange for additional training from the software company and implement a program in which computer data entries are reviewed by the assistant chief prior to the end of each shift.

Methodology

The Illinois-based company used a six-person team to evaluate the Elyria Fire Department including Tim McGrath, a retired fire chief with 33 years of fire and EMS experience. Others on the team include two retired fire chiefs with more than
65 years combined experience, a longtime city administrator and former city manager, and two longtime career firefighters each of whom hold degrees in fire science.

McGrath said his team began more than five months ago and has repeatedly visited Elyria, speaking with members of the Fire Department and administration as well as collecting mountains of paperwork.

McGrath did say there were some serious challenges facing the department. However, until next Wednesday’s public meeting at which time City Council is formally presented with the report, he declined to elaborate.

“All I can say is this report is about 130 pages more than we have ever had to write on any other Fire Department,” he said.

The McGrath Group was the company chosen in November 2005 to complete a similar audit of the Westlake Fire Department. That report needed only 142 pages.

Recommendations

  • Close Broad and Cedar street fire stations
  • Build a new station at Prospect Street and University Avenue
  • Build a new station in the southwest part of the city
  • Sell the brand new, $1.1 million fire truck that the city isn’t using
  • Seek concessions from the Fire Department’s benefit-rich contract
  • Shift dispatching duties to the Police Department
  • Adopt a minimum staffing of 13 per shift
  • Address the way scheduled days off are used

Contact Lisa Roberson at 329-7121 or lroberson@chroniclet.com.