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Staffing provision could be a concern locally

October 22, 2011
By Evan Bevins ( , The Marietta Times

Marietta police and firefighters' contracts establish a minimum number of workers to be on duty at any time, but that would no longer be an option for them if Issue 2 is approved by voters in November.

The restriction against collectively bargaining for minimum staffing levels has been one of the most contested provisions of the sweeping Senate Bill 5, which revamps Ohio's collective bargaining laws and is the subject of a referendum in the upcoming general election.

But just 5 percent of public employee contracts actually have such provisions, according to Building a Better Ohio, the group advocating for upholding SB5 by passing Issue 2.

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Both of Marietta's public safety forces are in that number, and officials say sometimes even meeting that minimum is a challenge.

The International Association of Firefighters Local 442's contract with the city calls for at least eight firefighters to be on duty at any time.

Meanwhile, the Fraternal Order of Police contract with Marietta dictates that three officers, a supervisor and a dispatcher must be on duty each shift.

Fact Box

Minimum staffing levels

Marietta Police Department - Three officers, one supervisor, one dispatcher (one less officer from 3 to 7 a.m.).

Marietta Fire Department - Eight firefighters.

"Anything less and you basically can just answer one call," Marietta Police Chief Brett McKitrick said, noting the need for backup to be available in potentially dangerous situations. "This way basically you have two groups of two."

One less officer is required between 3 and 7 a.m., McKitrick said.

Meeting that minimum isn't always easy, the chief said.

"Our manpower right now, it's kind of difficult," he said.

Although the department is authorized for 33 officers, there are currently a total of 29, including the chief. One recent vacancy is expected to be filled soon, raising the number to 30, McKitrick said.

But two detectives, the chief and an information technology specialist are not part of the four platoons the department runs, Capt. Jeff Waite said. Factoring in the department's 12-hour shifts, vacation, sick leave and comp time, means it's sometimes a challenge to meet the contract's requirement.

"You have to use overtime, call somebody out," McKitrick said.

Even if it was no longer required by a contract, McKitrick said he would keep the minimum in place.

Supporters of the provision argue it puts the decision-making in the hands of administrators like McKitrick, who know their department's manpower needs and their community's financial situation. Opponents say it takes influence on the decision away from the people on the front lines, who know their needs best.

Marietta Fire Capt. Jack Hansis said he's confident Chief C.W. Durham wouldn't advocate for lowering the minimum number of firefighters on duty. But he is concerned with what could happen as city finances remain tight and there is no means for the union to require a minimum staffing level.

Even the current number, eight, is a compromise, Hansis said.

"According to the experts and the studies out there, we've been under-manned for a while," he said.

Civil service study guides and exams recommend a minimum of 13 firefighters to battle a blaze at a structure of less than 3,500 square feet, Hansis said. That doesn't include engine operators and officers to oversee interior and exterior operations and safety, he said.

"We do what we have to with what the city has provided," he said. "We also realize that there's only so much of the tax pie to go around."

The department has 34 firefighters, including the chief and fire inspector, Hansis said. On a good day, there might be 10 firefighters on duty and on rare occasions, there are even 11 or 12.

But vacation, comp and sick time often leave the department with the minimum, which Hansis said can be an issue when there are multiple medical calls. Two people are the minimum number that can be sent on a call, but Hansis said if it's a potential heart attack he prefers to send three so there will be two EMTs in the back working on the patient.

"It's a very, very uncomfortable position that you're praying 'God, please don't let anything else happen,'" he said.

McKitrick said that even though he believes administrators like himself would keep a proper minimum number in place, he thinks it's still a good idea for the issue to be open to collective bargaining.

"There's two sides in a negotiation, and you've got to reach the mid-point," he said.

A spokesman for Building a Better Ohio said recently that employees could still discuss staffing levels under SB5, but those levels cannot be mandated through collective bargaining. A spokeswoman for We Are Ohio, which urges a no vote on Issue 2, said the topic can only be brought up if management approves.



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