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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.

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.

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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

  • Wow…
    Maybe the County Commission should focus on ensuring basic services for this community, and treating it’s EMS employees right, and not worry about being the most progressive, woke county east of Multnomah County? 🤔

  • A truly sad thing is that as Mr Clifford mentioned, that timeframe doesn’t include meals or sleep. If you have a rescue running a stand-up 24 (24 hr shift that is run after run after run with no break or sleep time, you can expect mistakes to be made in patient care!!! The deputy chief should be rotating MOT through. Additionally, the excuse of “well, everyone else has gone home already” just doesn’t fly. It shows a lack of pro-activess and procrastination by leadership in waiting until the last minute. What would happen if this was the 2nd day in a row that this happened to a paramedic? He/she is now on 48 hrs without sleep. That is a situation that is unsafe for the medic, the fellow crewmembers on calls, the EMT partner (who usually is driving and if the EMT is the one on MOT, the risk if a vehicle crash increases every hour), and most especially the patient!!!

    What should happen is the filing of a grievance with the State Dept of Hearth or whoever handles certification of ambulance services for the state. In AZ, I know they needed to have a Certificate of Necessity (CON) from AZDHS and they had to maintain staffing levels that protected the personnel, the general public, and the patients. The CON could be yanked away if situations like this were the norm. You can also work with the legislature to pass a law limiting how many hours a responder can work without any sleep. Most medical residents, for example, are limited in how many hours they can work continuously, unless they are able to get sleep in one of the car rooms. Attending doctors are expected to monitor those situations and order a resident to sleep if they haven’t gotten any. I know this guy is comforted bc a surgical resident who has been awake for 35 straight hours getting ready to operate on my tends to make nervous since they can remove an incorrect piece of my body, they can drop sponges and Junior Mints and leave then in me, and they could possibly fall asleep standing at the table! With such a time critical and dangerous job, our first responders, no matter which field in public safety, to be at their very best and able to perform their skills to the very best standards to save lives!

    Mr Clifford, as a former first responder, I salute you and all of those whom you represent! If Alachua County can’t get it’s act together and do a better job (Gainesville is the same boat: spending cuts: only if they’re in public safety!), it’s going to be ironic when new county is formed and the current’s namesake will be moving to the new county. Hopefully, they expedite the new county and many of the first responders can move to the new county where they’ll have people who care about having a strong public safety and will work to get you the equipment and personnel you need to do the job extremely awesome!!!

  • Maybe this county needs a new County Manager that can do the job and fund ACFR?

    • I would suggest the county manager spend a week in the life of a rescue unit…same hours and same pay. Better yet, have every county commissioner do the same. Forfeit/donate their overcompensated salaries they would get for the week to a first responder charity and “earn” the wages a front line worker would make. Maybe they would have a better appreciation for the work.

      Like many things this will never happen. THEY tend to only want to protect and defend what THEY have.

      Think THEY care about us? Keep on believing…

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