Ohio city pulls plan to hire part-time FFs after union's resistance

The Strongsville Fire Fighters Association said the hiring of part-time firefighters would undermine professionalism at the department


Bob Sandrick
The Plain Dealer, Cleveland

STRONGSVILLE, Ohio — City Council has tabled a proposal to hire, for the first time, part-time firefighters to beef up the Fire Department staff, instead opting to seek a tax increase that would pay for additional full-time firefighters.

The Strongsville Fire Fighters Association, the union representing firefighters here, opposed hiring the part-timers, saying it would undermine the professionalism of their department. The union supports the tax increase -- which residents will vote on Nov. 3 -- and expanding the full-time staff.

The city of Strongsville has pulled its plan to hire part-time firefighters after resistance from the firefighters' union. (Photo/The City of Strongsville)
The city of Strongsville has pulled its plan to hire part-time firefighters after resistance from the firefighters' union. (Photo/The City of Strongsville)

Matt Kasza, firefighters union president, said in a June 25 email to council that the city administration failed to thoroughly explore the implications of hiring part-time firefighters.

“The Fire Chief (Jack Draves) did not form a committee, no studies have been done and there is no cost-benefit analysis,” Kasza said in the email. “There is also no plan on how part-timers would be implemented into fire department operations.

“I would think all of these actions would have been done before this topic was brought before council to vote on, and since they haven’t, I don’t see how council can approve such a decision,” Kasza told council.

Draves, speaking at a special June 25 council meeting devoted entirely to the issue of part-time firefighters, said hiring part-timers would work, based on the knowledge and experience he has accumulated as a firefighter for 28 years and as Strongsville chief for six years.

“I’m not saying this is the be-all-end-all, but it is a valid option at this point,” Draves said at the meeting.

The city is looking to increase fire department staffing because earlier this year it eliminated overtime for all municipal workers -- including firefighters -- due to declining income tax revenues caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, the fire department has failed to achieve minimum staffing levels at its four fire stations, Kasza has stated.

“Part-time firefighters would help reduce financial obligations that come with full-time firefighters,” Draves said in email to cleveland.com before the city decided to seek a tax increase for additional full-time firefighters.

At the June 25 meeting, Mayor Thomas Perciak said income tax collections were down $5.2 million, compared to last year, since the COVID-19 pandemic started. He said the city will save about $500,000 due to switching to a four-day workweek in June, and added that all municipal departments have cut spending, but that might not be enough.

“There’s not going to be a choice,” Perciak said. “There will be permanent layoffs” if the pandemic-driven financial crisis continues.

Perciak said the city’s Walter F. Ehrnfelt Recreation Center, which reopened in June, is also facing financial troubles. Due to social-distancing requirements, the center is doing just 20 percent of its normal business.

“I hate to say this, but we might have to close it down completely until we get through this mess,” Perciak said.

An ‘unprecedented time’

At the June 25 meeting, Draves said the fire department reorganized its staff earlier this year to deal with the elimination of overtime. For example, the minimum number of firefighters on duty at each station was dropped from three to two.

Draves said the department considered paying straight time to firefighters working overtime, but learned that the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act didn’t allow it.

One option, Draves said, was hiring part-time firefighters who would not replace current full-timers, but support them. He said city code allows the mayor to recruit up to 20 part-time firefighters, although no mayor has ever acted on that code section.

Draves recommended hiring six part-time firefighters to start.

Charles Goss, Strongsville’s public safety director, said the city already employs part-time dispatchers at the Southwest Emergency Dispatch Center on Pearl Road, as well as part-time jailers.

He said both the dispatch center and jail have successfully integrated part-timers, who cover for full-time sick or injured workers, into their operations.

Draves said part-timers can also temporarily replace full-time firefighters in training.

Steve Kilo, Strongsville’s human resources director, said the city administration was considering part-time firefighters due to the “unprecedented time” the world is facing because of COVID-19. He said other cities were weighing similar measures.

Turnover trouble

Kasza, in his email to council members and speaking directly to them June 25, said the Strongsville dispatch center has experienced problems with training of, and reliability with, part-time dispatchers. He said they have a high turnover rate.

Kasza said one full-time dispatcher told him that a part-timer with inadequate training was “lost” when taking police calls. He said part-time dispatchers don’t keep up with the latest protocols.

Goss took exception to Kasza’s remarks about the part-time dispatchers.

“We would have been lost without our part-time dispatchers during this crisis,” Goss said.

Councilman Jim Kaminski said he would like to know the actual turnover rate of part-time dispatchers in Strongsville. When cleveland.com asked Kasza that same question, he said he would hold off answering for now because he didn’t want to ruin negotiations over firefighter staffing with the city.

Kasza said he was troubled with the speed in which the part-time firefighter measure was heading through council. He said the fire department historically has appointed committees to consider new ideas or purchases.

“We recently had a committee formed to decide what ladder truck the department would purchase,” Kasza said in his email. “This committee had many meetings, performed research and even sent members to the (Fire Department Instructors Conference) convention to spec out the different trucks. If my memory is correct, it took them over a year to decide what truck to buy.”

Kasza attached to his email a 2011 article from The Piqua Daily Call about that city’s study into whether to add part-time firefighters to its full-time staff. The study was negative against part-timers.

“Research indicates that change during an economic recession is risky, and perhaps the best show of financial restraint is to retain the best qualified employee,” the study said.

Dave Haffner, a shift commander with the Strongsville Fire Department, told council he didn’t know of any Strongsville firefighter who would want to work with part-timers. He said there would be friction between the full-time and part-time staff.

Also, Haffner said young, inexperienced part-timers with limited training would be prone to errors. Then, after gaining experience and working out their mistakes, they would leave for other cities.

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©2020 The Plain Dealer, Cleveland

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