Firefighters union criticizes Alachua County Fire Rescue budget

Letter to Alachua County Commission from James Clifford, a member of the Management Unit of the Fire Rescue Professionals of Alachua County L3852:

I have watched the budget process this year with bated breath, hoping that your Fire Rescue staff could convince County Management that we indeed need more rescue companies. Unfortunately this comes during a pandemic that seems to get all the credit for the increase in call load, workload, and hospital wait times. The fact of the matter is Fire Rescue has been dealing with these issues for years before the COVID pandemic, and if additional rescues are not funded, we will continue to run off good people who will not tolerate this treatment.

Alachua County Fire Rescue has had issues staffing the Rescue Lieutenant position for the last 20 years. We have had times when we are fully staffed, voluntary overtime was sought after, and mandatory overtime was nonexistent. Unfortunately, those times did not last long because our call load continues to increase and the work demand has increased as well. I differentiate between the two because they are not the same. Call load is one metric, while workload is another.

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A typical rescue call usually takes a little less than an hour to run. So why would we need additional rescues if our busiest trucks are only running 15 calls per day in a 24 hour shift? Because while the actual time on calls would be less than 15 hours, the paperwork, training time (minimum of 2 hours per shift), and returning to station time would put those 15 calls at closer to 20 hours of workload for an in-town rescue. In addition to those tasks, crews are responsible for vehicle upkeep, station maintenance, and the like.

Add hospital wait times on top of this. I stress to you that this is not a new issue; an article was in the Gainesville Sun about wait times in 2015. Hospital wait times are so common that we don’t even notify a supervisor until a unit has hit the 1 hour mark. The time described above does not include meals, down time to relax in between calls, and God forbid a quick nap to keep sharp. 

I would like to take this opportunity to discuss mandatory overtime (MOT). MOT occurs when we are unable to fill vacancies with voluntary overtime (OT). In the years from 2015 to this calendar year, we have seen a dramatic rise in MOT.

In 2015 we had 329 instances of MOT for a total of 3823 hours. In 2016 we had 337 instances of MOT for 4252 hours. In 2017 there were 277 counts of MOT for 3061 hours. 2018 we had 627 MOT assignments for 7358 hours. In 2019 again we had an increase to 648 instances for 7122 hours.

As you know, all of these are prior to the current pandemic. In calendar year 2020, we had a slight reduction in instances down to 623 instances for 6667 hours. This calendar year, we have had 724 instances of MOT for an astounding 9321 hours. That figure is for only 8 months of the calendar year.

We do this to our firefighters and paramedics, and then in the morning before the end of their regularly-scheduled shift, a District Chief calls the employee and tells them that no one took the overtime that is at another busy rescue and tells them they are required to stay for an additional 12 or 24 hours.

Let me give you an example of how this conversation goes.

District Chief to RLt with less than one year on the job:

RLt: “Hey Chief.”

Chief: “Hey man, sorry to do this to you, but you are assigned MOT today at Rescue 30.”

RLt: “Oh my God, Chief, my son is having surgery today.”

District Chief: “Sorry, bud, but everyone else has gone home, so you are it.”

RLt: “What are my options?”

District Chief: “You can quit!”

This is an actual example of what happened to one of our employees. How long do you think that people will continue to do this before they are looking for another place to work?

We understand that declared emergencies happen. But again, this is not new or a COVID problem when we are staffing the department with overtime and mandatory overtime to keep trucks in service. This can no longer classify as an emergency situation. The truth of the matter is, we don’t need one rescue this year; we need multiple rescues. And next year we need more rescues.

Ambulance transport fees generate the vast majority of the cost of a rescue company, with minimal  expense from the general fund. Did I hear Mr. Crosby say we expect over 38-39 million dollars in fund balance with our reserves fully funded?  “He also expects that we will have upwards of 5-6 million dollars in lapsed salaries and other things”. How can you not fund a lifesaving resource with that kind of money on hand? The difference in a partial year funding and a full year is less than $500,000.

I understand that it was brought up by Manager Lieberman that we can’t staff the “additional” rescue that was approved. While that is true, it is because we are working our staff to the bone, and that rescue was to be staffed with voluntary overtime. Why would anyone sign up for a voluntary overtime shift knowing that a mandatory overtime shift is right around the corner? We need to fund the Fire Rescue ambulance division so it is a great place to work, so we do not need to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year recruiting and onboarding new employees that will be looking for another place to work in the first year because they know they cannot work under these conditions for a career. 

The staff of Alachua County Fire Rescue believe in Chief Theus and our Fire Rescue headquarters management team, but they cannot do their job effectively without appropriate funding. 

Thank you for your time,
James Clifford
IAFF Local 3852 Management Unit