City council rejects union request for 24-hour FF shifts during COVID-19 crisis

The mayor of Watertown, N.Y. disagreed with the union's argument that 24-hour shifts would mean less firefighters being exposed to the virus


Craig Fox
Watertown Daily Times, N.Y.

WATERTOWN, N.Y. — The City Council shot down a plan that could prevent city firefighters from getting the coronavirus by having them work 24-hour shifts, according to the president of the firefighters’ union.

Daniel Daugherty, president of the Watertown Professional Firefighters Association Local 191, hoped to have a deal with City Council members that would prevent a nightmare scenario that large numbers of the Fire Department could be sidelined by the COVID-19 crisis.

The city council of Watertown, N.Y. has rejected a request from Watertown Professional Firefighters Association Local 191 to have firefighters switch to 24-hour shifts during the COVID-19 crisis. The union argued that fewer firefighters being involved in shift changes would minimize the staff exposed to the virus.
The city council of Watertown, N.Y. has rejected a request from Watertown Professional Firefighters Association Local 191 to have firefighters switch to 24-hour shifts during the COVID-19 crisis. The union argued that fewer firefighters being involved in shift changes would minimize the staff exposed to the virus. (Photo/Watertown Firefighters Facebook)

But a majority of council members turned down the proposal.

“I don’t know why they decided not to do it,” Mr. Daugherty said, wondering whether it had something to do with the bad blood over labor negotiations between the city and firefighters’ union.

Last week, Fire Chief Matthew R. Timerman and Mr. Daugherty worked out a plan for firefighters to be on duty for 24 hours and then have three days off. By doing so, fewer firefighters would be involved in changing shifts, and that could prevent an entire shift from getting the virus and end up missing work, Mr. Daugherty said.

“It would be better for the guys, for their health and safety, and their families,” he said.

At this point, no city firefighters have contracted COVID-19.

Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith contended the 24-hour shift is not any safer than working eight or 12 hours. Instead, he recommends limiting contact from those who might have the virus, isolating anyone who comes in contact and everyone wearing personal protective equipment, or PPEs, as ways to prevent the coronavirus.

If it’s safer to work a 24-hour shift, then why not do the same for the police and public works departments, Mayor Smith asked, rhetorically.

“Why did they ask for it?” he said, adding that 24-hour shifts was once a topic of negotiations with the union.

As for the fire department, the mayor would isolate firefighters who work on the emergency medical truck from the other members of the department because they are the ones who have the most contact with the public.

In Buffalo this week, however, it was revealed that as many as 24 firefighters and 17 police officers were diagnosed with the disease. If that happened here, a shift could be knocked out of work and the city would have to pay overtime to their colleagues, the union president said.

City firefighters now work three 10-hour days, three off, three 14-hour stay-over days and then be off for the next three days.

After getting union members “to buy into it,” Mr. Daugherty and Chief Timerman put together an 84-day schedule for the 24-hour shift that would have gone into effect this past Sunday.

The fire chief presented the plan to City Manager Kenneth A. Mix, who told council members about it on March 27. He then informally polled council members with the proposal.

“The majority of council was not interested in it to pass, so we stopped working on it,” Mr. Mix said.

While he referred all questions about the proposal to Mr. Mix, Chief Timerman said that the fire department has taken a series of steps to prevent firefighters from contracting COVID-19.

Councilwoman Lisa A. Ruggiero supported the proposal, noting the risks for firefighters.

“They’re on the front line,” she said. “My understanding is that it would help with overtime.”

In talking to them, firefighters told her that the plan would benefit the city more than it would them.

Syracuse and Montreal are among city fire departments that have switched to a 24-hour shift to help prevent firefighters from getting COVID-19.

Here are some steps that the city’s Fire Department has taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at work: All three stations are on lockdown, each of the platoons is isolated, there is no contact between shifts, cleaning the fire stations three times a day, wearing PPEs and N95 masks, and wearing civilian clothing to work and changing into uniforms in the fire station.

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©2020 Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, N.Y.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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