OCEAN CITY — The ongoing dispute over the cause of unfilled firefighter-paramedic shifts spilled over to Monday’s Mayor and Council meeting with the firefighter-paramedic union making an impassioned plea for help from the town’s elected officials.
The Ocean City Fire Department has reported a vast number of shifts listed as unfilled in the department’s schedule, first for May and June and for July and August. According to the Career Firefighter Paramedics Association of Ocean City, or Local IAFF 4269, there were 960 total unfilled hours in May and June that were ultimately covered with overtime from career and volunteer firefighters. For July and August, that number has swelled to nearly 3,900 hours, according to the IAFF.
During the public comment period on Monday, IAFF President Ryan Whittington told the Mayor and Council the staffing challenges and unfilled shifts has now resulted in the first reduction of service for the department.
“I think you would all agree in Ocean City we have a large number of high-rises and special circumstances,” he said. “Currently, we send one engine and one ambulance to high-rise automatic fire alarms. It’s part of our department’s commitment to deliver good, quality service.”
However, sending an ambulance crew to each and every automatic fire alarm at high-rise buildings in Ocean City could be the first casualty of a reduction of service caused by the scheduling challenges.
“In the past, our delivery of service to high-rise automatic fire alarms has never been disputed,” he said. “It makes sense to send a firefighter and an EMT to the scene. Unfortunately, this service delivery is being reduced. During budget hearings in April, our fire chief came before the Mayor and Council and said our department was facing a staffing shortage due to federal mandates, over-reliance on part-time staff and the new schedule that was implemented by the Mayor and Council in October.”
Whittington said the department’s deployment protocol for automatic fire alarms in high-rise buildings was altered in a recent memo.
“Tonight, I’m here to share with you the first reduction of services,” he said. “A new memo from the department states the recommended response to the level-two automatic fire alarm call at a high-rise will no longer include a medical resource.”
The IAFF president issued a rather dire warning about the deployment change.
“What that means is if you live or stay in a high-rise building, you no longer get an ambulance on an initial dispatch for an automatic fire alarm,” he said. “To put it all in perspective, an ambulance has been on high-rise silent alarm calls for many, many years.”
When Ocean City Fire Chief Chris Larmore presented his budget to the Mayor and Council in April, he told the elected officials the department was facing staffing challenges for a variety of reasons including federal mandates for part-time employees under the Affordable Care Act and the Medical Leave Act, for example. Larmore said other factors included a reliance on part-time paramedics, many of whom have similar jobs with other departments.
However, the IAFF has contended from the beginning the staffing challenges are directly related to a change in the schedule rotations implemented by the Mayor and Council last October.
Historically, both the career and volunteer firefighters worked in concentrated 24-hour shifts followed by 72 hours off. However, citing a variety of reasons, including potential missed calls, delayed responses and national trends, the town in the 2016 contract with the IAFF phased out the 24-72 shift rotation in favor of a hybrid rotation with 10-hour day shifts followed by two 14-hour night shifts.
The fire department’s new schedule essentially split the historic 24-hour shifts into separate 10- and 14-hour shifts. According to the IAFF 4269, the mandated schedule change has created severe vacancies in the department’s staffing schedule.
“In October 2017 when the new schedule was implemented, we informed you we didn’t think it was best for us, our department and the citizens that we serve and protect,” Whittington said on Monday. “Seven months later in April 2018, our fire chief came before you and said we have a staffing issue and we now need additional staff or face the potential of a reduction of services. On May 31, a reduction of a medical resource to level-two silent alarms has taken place.”
Larmore has contended the scheduling challenges have more to do with the various federal mandates, an imbalanced ratio of part-time to full-time staff and current members who are or will be out of duty for a variety of reasons. Last week, resort officials said there were nine full-time paramedics out of the rotation including five on medical leave, two who have retired and two more who have resigned.
Town officials have disputed the scheduling challenges and subsequent unfilled shifts have had little or nothing to do with the elimination of the 24-72 rotation.
“The largest challenge going into the 2018 season is the untimely absence of up to nine full-time paramedics,” Ocean City Communications Director Jessica Waters said. “Additionally, the availability of part-time staff has impacted scheduling. Any reference that the recent schedule challenges are based solely on the new schedule is simply not the full story.”
However, Whittington on Monday said the challenges have everything to do with the new schedule and disputed the notion five full-timers are currently out on medical leave.
“Some are going to blame it on five people being out on medical,” he said. “There are not five people out on medical leave. The five referenced recently by the town have already given dates when they will be out over the summer and most of them are for maternity reasons. Therefore, the number of open shifts because they are still on the schedule is only going to get worse.”
Last week, Mayor Rick Meehan said the new schedule will take some getting used to and the challenges now faced will be relieved after the growing pains.
“Change is never easy and does not come without some challenges,” said Meehan. “We know many of our departments, specifically our public safety departments, experience scheduling changes during our peak season. However, the Mayor and City Council are committed to work with the Ocean City Fire Department to work through these challenges.”
Whittington on Monday again said the challenges and resulting unfilled shifts are directly related to the shift changes.
“Some will blame it on change and that it will take getting used to,” he said. “We have to face the reality it’s because of the new schedule that requires double the number of staff members to report on any given day.”
Whittington closed his comments on Monday with an impassioned plea for the elected officials reconsider the shift changes and intercede on behalf of the firefighter-paramedics. He urged the Mayor and Council to get down to the “boots on the ground” level to find out the true story with the challenges created by the elimination of the traditional 24-72 shift rotation.
“I implore you after tonight’s meeting, tomorrow morning or any time you are driving through town to please stop in a firehouse, speak with your firefighters and paramedics and find out what is going on,” he said. “When your firefighters and paramedics receive a call for help, no matter what circumstances or time of day, we go. This is our call for help from you.”