Arbitrator backs fire union on response times

Jean Stothert

The mayor said the city will argue on appeal that the arbitrator exceeded his authority.

The Omaha Fire Department is not responding to emergencies fast enough, and the City of Omaha must address that, an arbitrator ruled last week in response to a complaint filed by the firefighters union.

John F. Sass of Golden, Colorado, ordered the city to put an additional fire engine, truck or medic unit into service, as well as to publish a more detailed report about bringing response times to national standards.

He also ordered the city to keep in service a medic unit stationed at 16th and Spring Streets and to "work diligently" to solve problems with response time data collection.

The Professional Fire Fighters Association of Omaha filed a grievance against the city in July 2013, arguing that the city violated its contract with the union. It argued that the city violated a provision of its contract saying that Omaha should strive to meet national standards for response times.

Steve LeClair, president of the firefighters union, said in a press release that the ruling was a victory for Omaha and firefighter safety.

"The attempts by the mayor to reduce public safety were found to be in violation of promises made by the city to the citizens and the firefighters who strive to protect them," he said.

Mayor Jean Stothert said she plans to appeal the ruling to the Douglas County District Court on grounds that the arbitrator exceeded his authority. She said the city doesn't plan to add an additional fire engine, truck or medic unit.

"Representative elected officials should be making budget decisions and not out-of-state arbitrators," she said in a statement.

Fire Chief Bernard Kanger said it would cost about $1 million a year to bring another apparatus into service.

Stothert said the issue stems from orders prepared by former Mayor Jim Suttle and former Fire Chief Mike McDonnell. Those two officials made assurances in 2011 that the Fire Department was complying with standards, she said, but it has become clear that the city hasn't met the standards "for some time."

Stothert rescinded the order, but it already had become part of the city's contract with the union.

But Stothert said the city is making progress.

She said response times are improving, and the city had not published a report about compliance with response time standards before 2013.

The National Fire Protection Association sets standards governing how quickly firefighters should generally respond to an emergency. For example, it says that 90 percent of the time, EMS units should leave the station within one minute, and other fire-suppression units should leave within 1 minute, 20 seconds. The first engine should arrive at the scene within 4 minutes.

The Omaha Fire Department is meeting those standards about 80 percent of the time, according to the union.

Kanger said that few other departments of similar size meet the 90 percent standard in all areas. He said the Omaha department's goal is to raise its number to 85 percent by 2016.

The union argued that the city has a contractual obligation to try to meet national standards for response times. But it said the city had no plans to do so.

The city told the arbitrator that its long-term goal is to come into compliance with the national standards. But it argued that the standards are "objectives" rather than rules.

The city also argued that it can hold off on making progress toward those goals "for economic or budgetary reasons."

Sass rejected that argument, saying, "Once a city makes a contractual agreement to do something ... it cannot simply decide in its own sole discretion to disregard that commitment just because it does not have enough money to keep its commitment and also do the other things that it would like to do."

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