As the country still struggles to emerge from its economic funk, cities are finding alternative ways to save money when it comes to fire departments.

Late last week, news came from Glendale, California, that the City is finalizing a plan to transition fire fighters into dual paramedic positions. The plan would move two fire fighters/paramedics from rescue ambulances to all nine engine companies. The crew will be accompanied by a rescue ambulance staffed with hourly ambulance operators and apprentices.

Glendale Local 776 President Christopher Stavros says that it is important to the community to have two paramedics on a doorstep in five minutes or less, and this was the best way to accomplish that in a large city while still maintaining staffing that will maximize fire fighter safety on the fire ground.

The plan eliminates the potential for fire fighter layoffs, maintains four person staffing on all engine and truck companies, maintains constant staffing (preserving overtime), and severely reduces the possibility of any major contract concessions in the future.

Since 2008, the Glendale Fire Department has cut 17 positions, mostly from administrative assignments.

Stavros says the fire union developed the proposal because it didn’t feel management or the City would do the right thing.

“The way we feel about it is nobody knows our profession better than we do and if they do, then shame on us. We were not going to be led down a path that wasn’t in the citizens’ or our best interests,” says Stavros.

The options that fire fighters faced were deeply unsatisfying or compromised safety and included: taking at least a five percent pay cut to protect staffing levels, reducing four person staffing on engines and trucks,  or eliminating paramedics who ride on ambulances (50% of the time transporting patients that have no need for ALS care). At the end of the day, Local 776 felt that trading money for staffing was a loser in this economy, which could take a decade or longer to fully recover.

“They will just keep asking for more concessions year after year,” says Stavros.

Stavros also feels that part of the decision was made in light of a much bigger picture. “Our new fire fighters have a longer life expectancy. If they retire at 55 with 90% of their pay, what will be the condition of the pension system when they live for 10-15 years longer in retirement than the years they put on the job?”

Stavros says other solutions such as station brownouts, closing a station, saving money on overtime pay by “running down” were unethical to the citizens, compromised fire fighter safety, and were not long-term solutions that both the City and the union believed were ultimately necessary.

Stavros says the fire union came up with the plan (already used by many other departments in southern California) that would save highly skilled and highly paid jobs. By reducing the number of personnel who perform tasks that do not match their training is the right call for the future, he says. “In my opinion, if we are going to maintain fair compensation and benefits, we need to preserve highly skilled jobs, and even look at how to expand that skill set as we move forward; that is the long-term key to survival of our profession in the future.”

“Any pay or benefit or staffing cut would be permanent – we won’t get them back,” Stavros says. “Right now everyone is in survival mode. We had a vision for the next 20 years, and this plan gives our guys job security and introduces a new way of thinking when it comes to working out budget issues, at least in our City.”

The number of positions that will be lost is 21. The City will pay for at least 21 fire fighters to go to paramedic school, which is another component to securing long-term training for Local 776 members.

Fire fighters/paramedics will receive a 15 percent increase in pay when they graduate from paramedic school, and all non-paramedics will receive a 1% specialty pay bonus. In addition, promoted paramedics will receive a permanent 8% pay boost.

“We have maintained a great relationship with City leaders,” says Stravros. “And let’s face it, at the end of the day all we really have is that goodwill. Once our contract expires the City can really do whatever it wants to us,” Stavros says.