On January 5th, your East Pierce Firefighters Union approved a memorandum of understanding that will reduce staffing even lower, eliminate special hazards response capabilities for 6 months, and keeps positions unfilled for at least another year. Its a tough situation to be in, but overall the savings negotiated will save the Fire District an estimated 1.5 million dollars in 2015 and will reduce salary for some employees almost 10%.
In early 2012 the Union negotiated a contract extension that extended the agreement to the end of 2015. Later on in 2012 EPFR management determined that the tax payer funding structure would not be enough to continue business as usual, given the already low staffing, and the need for additional firefighters, firefighter training, vehicle and building maintenance. The EPFR Administration as well as the Fire Commissioners ran and voters approved a 2 year Maintenance & Operations Levy in 2012. Funding for that measures was set to expire at the end of 2014. EPFR Administration and the Board of Fire Commissioners placed on the ballot in August of 2014 an extension and increase of the M & O Levy that would have allowed for the Fire District to hire 12 more firefighters, therefore, improving staffing, and lower the amount of overtime needed for daily staffing. Unfortunately it was rejected by the voters as it needs a 60% super majority to be voted in. It received a simple majority of 55.9%. This caused the EPFR Administration and the Board of Fire Commissioners to place a reduced levy, an extension of the current amount on the November ballot of the same year. Again, voters rejected that measure failing to garner the 60% super majority, but again receiving a simple majority of 56.3%. The reason the simple majority fails is due to an article in the Washington State Constitution that states excess levies for Fire Districts are required to have a 60% super majority, although this article does not require the same for School Districts or taxing jurisdictions known as "Regional Fire Authorities". Having this measure defeated twice, the EPFR Administration and Board of Fire Commissioners had to reduce the budget, and start to bridge the gap in funding that would be left by the failure to renew the levy. This levy is said to account for 14% of the total EPFR budget. Your East Pierce Firefighters wanted to be a part of the solutions, and therefore entered in to negotiations with EPFR administration.
During negotiations, there were multiple disputes and issues regarding the actual amount of money needed savings, and the ways to get to an agreeable answer. The EPFR Adminstration wanted to lower staffing even further, thus resulting in what are known as "Brown Outs" to emergency response. This would have taken response units out of service for a day in various regions of the Fire District. The Union felt that this was NOT an option given that we are already severly understaffed when compared to national safety standards. NFPA & Washington State law state that in order to effect a fire attack and victim rescue at a structure fire, there needs to be at least 3 firefighters on scene. Currently in East Pierce, all but 2 fire response units are staffed with 2 firefighters and often times those positions are filled using overtime because of the low staffing. Meaning firefighters have to wait for additional people to arrive at the scene when fire attack and rescue is needed. This takes an already dangerous situation and makes it even more unsafe, for both citizens and firefighters. The Union was able to craft an agreement that saved money, and kept all units in service, however, reducing staffing for all units to 2. No units will be taken out of service. This agreement also reduces overtime to practically zero, with estimated savings of $875,000.
Many positions of the Fire District have been left unfilled or not replaced as employees retire. An additional part of the concessions agreement leaves the Assistant Chief or Prevention position unfilled. The work will be given to the other Assistant Chiefs to complete. This will save the Fire District approximately $165,000 in 2015. In the last 4 years, the Fire Districts full time employees have gone from a high of 131 to the current number of 123. 6 firefighter retirements that have not been replaced have also contributed to staffing issues. These positions have been left unfilled to facilitate financial savings from continued budgetary issues following the housing bubble and the "Great Recession".
EPFR also provides emergency responses for hazardous materials emergencies, wildland fire emergencies, water rescue emergencies, and for emergencies involving specialized rescue such as high & low angle rescues, trench, collapse, assorted rope rescues. Many of your EPFR members are cross trained to perform these specials functions of emergency response. In order to provide for a highly functional and organized response, EPFR created teams that can deploy and initiate help to these emergencies while still receiving assistance from other highly trained firefighters and police responding from other Pierce County organizations. The members of EPFR who are picked for these teams receive additional compensation for providing these services. In an effort to save money, recognizing that these emergency responses will still be requested of our members, the Fire District and the Union agree to eliminate any additonal pay or funding to these teams and team members for 6 months in 2015, saving the organzation estimated $200,000. Emergency responses for these type of incidents will still have our members dispatched, however Pierce County teams will be called in earlier to assist. Unfortunately there may be delays in responses for these events. Statistically they make up about less than 1% of the total alarms we respond to. Members will continue to train as best they can while on duty. Again, this is additional training these members perform including their regular fire and EMS training.
The final cost savings identified were through firefighter pay. The current firefighter pay scheduled via contract to take effect in January of 2015 gave firefighters a cost of living adjustment (COLA) of 2%. The firefighters felt the need to give back part of this contractual obligation as it made sense to sacrifice some wages to help ensure financial stability of the organization. This COLA was negotiated in early 2012 to take effect. The Buearu of Labor Statistics reports our regions economy grew by 1.7% in 2014. The firefighters concessions agreement will eliminate this contractual COLA for 11 months of 2015, essentially reducing it to 0.16% COLA for 2015. East Pierce Firefighters make a comparable wage to firefighters from other cities and towns in the Puget Sound region. This agreed to concession will save the Fire District an estimated $261,000 in 2015.
We also felt the need to ensure that the critical training we are able to give to the kids of East Pierce county in the form of CPR classes was critical. So although the money was eliminated from the buget for firefighters to perform this training outside of their normal working hours on overtime, it was agreed upon that a civilian employee of the Fire District could take on this work and ensure it continues for 2015.
EPFR spans over 152 square miles, serving approximately 88,000 citizens in 4 cities, 1 town, and a large portion of unincorporated Pierce County. It protects urban, suburban, and rural properties. Geographic issues such as Lake Tapps, and roadways being not in straight lines due to geology creates a unique response challenge for EPFR. Historically Fire response units are in the area spread out to cover large portions of populations with fewer factors determining there locations. East Pierce County presents certain challenges to that because of those various examples given. Fire Stations are spread around Lake Tapps, they are centered on Hills, and they are positioned near highly accessible arterial routes. Our region is growing. Its only expected to increase its growth given the increasing speed of the economy. These factors will contribute to the need for more fire stations, and firefighters than a normal flat, and highly paved region would neccesitate. Its a reality of our area. Therefore its hard, but not impossilbe to draw similarlities with other fire service organizations. Our Union will continue to work to do well for the citizens and our members.
Our membership is very proud to serve the citizens of Milton, Edgewood, Sumner, Bonney Lake, Lake Tapps, Prairie Ridge, West Buckley, South Prairie and all the areas in between. We will continue to look for financially reasonable ways to better serve you. Thank you for all of your continued support. If you have any questions please contact us at President@iaff3520.org.
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